Bravery, confidence and gumption the keys to winning FC Cincinnati’s first Hell is Real matchup in Columbus

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COLUMBUS - There was an emotional release on the field that spilled into the locker rooms deep in the tunnels of Lower. Com Field. The final whistle blew, the deep breaths exhaled, and the scoreboard showed a line that had never happened in the history of the two Ohio clubs.

FC Cincinnati stormed into enemy territory and beat the Columbus Crew 2-1. Luciano Acosta scored and assisted on a Kevin Kelsy goal within two minutes to put the hellish rivalry on ice and claim emphatically that Ohio is Orange and Blue until the next time these two meet.

From kickoff to the final whistle, FCC went blow for blow with The Crew on their turf. MLS's best defensive core stymied the well-rounded Columbus attack at every turn, and the offensive group pushed the limits in the ways it could. While neither side broke through for over 70 minutes, what was clearly on display was a clash between two of the best teams the league offers, with both performing at an extremely high level.

But FC Cincinnati punched through. They punched through twice in two minutes with those goals from Kelsy and Acosta and then stood their ground, holding on to the two-goal lead despite an all-out offensive from their hosts that ultimately resulted in Columbus getting one goal back but failing to find the equalizer.

The performance took bravery, the breakthrough took confidence, and the outcome took gumption.

The bravery came from the entire group's work to trust their approach and own their individual roles to achieve success. Matt Miazga, postgame, explained that due to the way Columbus plays, the defensive core in particular, but really the whole team, knew what they needed to do to win, and to win, they needed to perform with courage in their positions.

"They play really expansive football, so we have to do a lot of shifting and a lot of one-on-one defending, and I thought we did that really well," the 2023 MLS Defender of the Year explained. "It's a derby rivalry game. That's enough for me to get me fired up. They're obviously a good team, so it's a tough game, but the reality is we have to focus on ourselves…so communication was key.”

"I was speaking with Miles (Robinson) and Ian (Murphy) and I was saying if we're gonna play this brave approach in the back, we need to communicate and pass that on to the other guys as well because they like to get these half spaces where we really don't know whether to go or not, but with communication and that confidence for for me to say 'Hey Miles, if you can go get in there, I'm behind you don't worry about it.' So it saved a lot of legs and helped us be confident and be brave."

"We have top defenders on this team. So I think it was basically, we tried to suffocate them. They obviously want to open up that space in the middle. And it was about winning our duels, so they can't really control the ball and turn on us….we played a brave game in the back, (Head Coach Pat Noonan) talked about having a brave approach, so we were confident in our guys."

Time and again, the FC Cincinnati defense thwarted the best the Columbus Crew could throw at them. Robinson, Miazga and Murphy each had standout moments where a tackle, an interception, or a clearance instantly ended a threat and allowed FCC the latitude to reset.

As the match grew and the nil-nil draw lingered on the scoreboard, with each tick of the clock moving closer to full-time, the entire team's confidence grew.

"Once we realized we can get on the ball and actually move the ball side to side, really step on it, be confident, be brave, they can't really defend us either," Miazga elaborated, "We saw that in the second half a lot, we had some really good chances.”

"It was about weathering the storm at moments but playing our game. If you're confident and brave you come here to get three points. We knew this would be a challenge. But we embraced that challenge with talent. Once we just realized 'yeah, we're tough. We're top dog in this league as well’'"

FC Cincinnati took the game to Columbus in a way that other MLS teams haven't necessarily been bold enough to do this season. The Crew are, by all expert accounts, one of, if not the, best teams in MLS when playing with possession and will punish opponents with their press when playing without the ball. But FCC maintained composure and patience and took the game away from Columbus by not allowing them to dictate the terms of the match.

"I couldn't be more pleased for the group to just come in and play the way we did," FC Cincinnati Head Coach Pat Noonan said postgame. "There was certainly a lot of talking points and previous disappointments, but it was nice for (the team) to, I don't want to say put some of that to rest because it's one game, but there was enough talk about our struggles against a good team and tonight, we just focused on playing a good game and hoping that our performance would result in a good outcome. And I think it did."

But what ultimately turned the tide in the match was a 67th-minute substitution from Noonan that gave his club the lift they needed. One that he considered not making to go to a more defensive strategy.

Kelsy, the forward who joined the club only last week, was brought on for Corey Baird and instantly put his stamp on the match. At 6'3", Kelsy brings a different dynamic to the forward group than anyone else on the team and helped drive play forward by using his size and skill to hold up the ball and had the composure to bring balls down and win possession in important moments.

It was his aerial play though that gave FC Cincinnati the first breakthrough, leaping over a defender when heading in a looping Acosta flick across the goal line to give the newcomer his first goal for The Orange and Blue and the lead in the derby match in the 72nd minute.

But it's a moment that almost didn't come to pass. With the 0-0 scoreline still in play and just over 20 minutes to play, Noonan said he considered a more conservative approach to help protect other matchups on the field while maintaining a defensive presence.

"My concern, I think, was what Columbus is capable of on the ball," Noonan explained. "And with (Kelsy) on the field, that meant that Lucho was going to have to be dealing with Moreira on that side who loves to advance and it was going to ask a lot of him with tired legs. So I was a little bit hesitant. We thought of bringing in Malik [Pinto] to play that role to just give us a little bit more defensively."

"But we wanted to see what (Kelsy) was all about."

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The youngster answered the call, stepping up in a big moment and cementing himself in FC Cincinnati's history as a goal scorer in the first Hell is Real derby away win in club history. MLS Season Pass play-by-play emphasized the moment in his call by exclaiming, "This is how legends are born!" While that is perhaps dramatic for a 19-year-old who has now played just more than 60 minutes for the club, it speaks to an important quality. Kevin Kelsy stepped up to the moment.

Noonan took the risk, going for the more dangerous (potentially) game-winning weapon rather than the status quo or the move that would (perhaps) most contribute to protecting the draw and the club was rewarded for it. He went for the kill in a nil-nil game.

Just five minutes later, Acosta and Kelsy connected for the header—a goal that, at the very least, it is hard to say anyone else on this team would have been able to finish at that moment.

"I thought he was really strong," Noonan continued in his evaluation of Kelsy. "I think he was really effective… and obviously, he comes through in a big moment to find the goal as well. So a really bright start for him."

Eventually, Pinto would come on for Acosta in the 87th minute to see out the game, but when it came to deciding whether to go for offense or be conservative with a defensive substitution, Noonan went for the win.

"He's a very talented player, and he's gonna help us a lot," Acosta said of Kelsy postgame while praising the youngster’s desire to contribute to the team. "He deserves this, he's been working really, really hard so to score in a game like this is big for him."

Acosta himself, though, provided the match winner just two minutes later when the captain pulled off another unthinkingly impressive bit of dribbling to cut back past a defender and oh-so-casually bury his shot into the back of the net for his sixth goal of the season.

It wasn't clear how healthy Acosta was entering the week but the 2023 MLS MVP proved why he was just that again as after limited training throughout the week Lucho provided 87 minutes of quality for the club.

On a night FC Cincinnati needed a full effort from everyone, they got exactly that. From the reigning MVP, to the MLS defensive back line, to Roman Celentano who made three key saves and intercepted a cross to avert danger, to another young player, Gerardo "Dado" Valenzuela who earned praise from his Head Coach calling his performance "his best in an FCC jersey."

All the way down the list, FC Cincinnati answered the call that rang out for them in Hell is Real. So when the future remembers the way FC Cincinnati won their first game in Columbus, may it be remembered for the bold strokes the manager made to earn the win and the bravery the men (and boys) on the field displayed to earn it.