MLS MVP front runner Luciano Acosta’s virtuoso performance lifted FC Cincinnati to a resounding 3-0 victory over Charlotte FC on Saturday night at TQL Stadium.
Fresh off signing a three-year extension with the club that would see their captain remain in Orange and Blue through 2026, Acosta contributed or created all three goal scoring opportunities, cementing his case for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award.
“You score three goals and keep a clean sheet at this stage against a team that I thought was in, and I still think is, in good form, despite the result is really impressive,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said of the result. “Very pleased with our group."
With three goals in the final 46 minutes of the match, FC Cincinnati earned their 13th win at home this season and improved their overall record to 18-4-8 with 62 points, as many points as FC Cincinnati had earned in their first three seasons combined. The Orange and Blue currently lead the Supporters' Shield standings by nine points with four games left in the regular season.
With a dominant performance from kickoff to final whistle, FCC conceded just six total shots with none hitting target and just 0.5 xG. It was also the first time this season FC Cincinnati did not receive a yellow card in a match.
“Every game feels like (a must win) just because of the situation we're in,” Noonan said. “Every time the guys step on the field, I think they recognize the magnitude of the game and our end goal and what's in sight. To be able to score three goals and keep a clean sheet is something I'm very pleased about.”
FC Cincinnati hit the road for their next match, heading back to Canada to take on Toronto FC next Saturday at BMO Field. The Orange and Blue return home to take on New York Red Bulls on October 4 in a match that could see them lifting their first ever MLS trophy by night’s end.
The Captain makes his mark
Acosta proved why he is the MVP front runner, creating all three goals for The Orange and Blue, including a goal of the year candidate in the 80th minute to seal FCC’s victory.
Picking up the ball just before the halfway mark, Acosta outran, outdribbled and flat out beat four defenders on his own before blasting a shot past the Charlotte goalkeeper for his 15th goal of the season.
Acosta, who signed an extension that would see him lead FC Cincinnati through the 2026 season, finished the match tied for the lead in the MLS Golden Boot award. The goal was also his third in four matches.
It would be impossible to know based on the results that while the captain was providing a MVP quality effort, Acosta was playing with significant pain in his heel.
“He played in a lot of pain,” Noonan said of Acosta. “People won't know that because he didn't show it. But he was struggling after that Montreal game and the last 48 hours was a lot of just trying to get him pain free. And he was not.
“For him to make it 83 minutes, and perform like that in discomfort… It speaks to how tough this kid is.”
Acosta insisted the pain did not impact his performance, but did say that the pain was present.
“It did hurt a lot today,” Acosta said. “I played the whole game tonight with some pain but no, it's just not something I think about when it’s time to think about the game.”
Acosta was subbed out in the 83rd minute with a 3-0 lead secured. Typically the midfielder doesn’t love being replaced in any match, but with the lead in hand and the pain he was feeling it was an opportunity to celebrate the MVP and give him a curtain-call from the FC Cincinnati faithful.
“You try to find the right moments to allow your fans to recognize and appreciate a top performance and a top player and we had that opportunity tonight,” Noonan said of the moment.
FCC fans showered Acosta with chants of “MVP” as he exited the pitch.
“That's what you do it for,” Acosta said. “That recognition. It feels so great. To make the fans happy and to hear them say that.”
Álvaro Barreal got The Orange and Blue on the board first with a blistering free kick that left goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina frozen in the 45+1 minute.
With a building offensive opportunity in the center of the field, Acosta was dragged down while working for a shot on target, winning a foul and free kick from about 28 yards out in front of the net. While Acosta was lined up as a potential free kick taker, it was Barreal who sprung in quickly to send a curling right to left shot to the upper corner of the net.
Barreal said post-game that Acosta told him to take the free kick, which was all the confidence he needed to step up and hit a banger for the opening goal.
“He told me to take it and he gave me the confidence,” Barreal said. “I’m practicing those all the time and a little bit of luck. It gives everybody that confidence to know that you know we're on the front foot.
“We're in a great way right now. I'm incredibly confident. The whole team knows what we can achieve.”
For Barreal, who was recently nominated for the 2023 FIFA Puskás Award for the most spectacular goal of the year, it was his fourth goal of the MLS season and 12th in Orange and Blue. It was Barreal’s first goal since earning the equalizer at Charlotte on July 8.
The goal marked the first time in four games, and second time in 10 matches that FCC have scored first.
Boupendza doubles the lead
With a lead earned in the first half, FC Cincinnati attackers didn’t wait long to strike for a second time, scoring their second goal of the match in the 50th minute, just five game minutes after earning the opener despite the halftime break.
Barreal sent a long lofting pass up the left wing that sprung Acosta on a fast break. The Charlotte defender beat him to the ball initially, but the crafty captain was able to strip him and drive into the box. Acosta juked a defender to create space before centering a short pass to a wide open Aaron Boupendza, who fired off a left-footed shot that beat the keeper and doubled the lead.
The goal was Boupendza’s fourth of the season in four MLS starts, and the assist was Acosta’s 12th of the season.
Celentano keeps it clean
With the victory, goalkeeper Roman Celentano earned his FCC all-time leading 11th clean sheet of the season. While the keeper was not challenged with a shot on target, Celentano was actively engaged in defending, and thwarting, many crossing chances from Charlotte FC, snuffing out three potential opportunities from corner kicks with punches out of the box.
“Guys stepped up and got another job done,” Celentano said of the defensive effort. “It's a team effort. It starts with (Aaron Boupendza), (Lucho Acosta) and Brandon Vazquez pressing. But another game with no shots on goal for the lads is awesome. It's locked in.”