FC Cincinnati deliver historic victory in Concacaf debut despite all the challenges that surrounded it

20240222 CAVvsFCC Match 161

It was not the greatest performance in club history. Pat Noonan defined his team’s output as a “mixed bag.” But it was a unique night for The Orange and Blue, who battled through the adversity that surrounded the match and earned a 2-0 victory in Kingston, Jamaica, over Jamaica Premier League side Cavalier FC.

For the first time, FC Cincinnati traveled outside the reaches of MLS nations and picked up another milestone victory after a banner 2023 season. Sergio Santos penned his name in the FCC record book as the first to score a goal in continental competition when he chipped a pass from Bret Halsey past the keeper in the 45+5 minute. Malik Pinto became the 41st member of The Orange and Blue to score a goal when he put a curling shot on the net that tucked itself neatly into the far corner in the 87th minute.

Roman Celentano kept a clean sheet, and Luciano Acosta was named the Man of the Match and received a nice trophy for his efforts. 

Despite all that, the challenges that FC Cincinnati faced were impossible to ignore. They colored their time at National Stadium at Independence Park from the moment they stepped off their bus to begin their pre-match preparations.

So many of the luxuries that are typically provided to MLS clubs when playing stateside were simply not there; others only provided by dozens of hours of hard work in preparation by the FCC support staff. The locker rooms were small and lacked space for everyone to sit down. There were no individual stalls and the showers consisted of just fourheads in a small space. 

The pitch had bumps and dead spots; it looked radically different from one patch of grass to another and clearly impacted how FCC wanted to play with the ball getting caught up on the grass regularly. The wear and tear is hardly surprising when you learn the history of the venue. The National Stadium at Independence Park (which also hosts a swimming and diving center across the parking lot from the soccer and track and field venue) is used for practically every major event in the city and surrounding areas. The usage of the grass playing field clearly outpaces the ability for groundskeeping that most are used to. On top of that with stadium lighting being inconsistent at best, the challenges at hand with the building presented major pressure points. 

The players, coaches and technical staff would never credit those kinds of conditions to any struggles. They persevere because that is their modus operandi. But it’s clear the effort it took to manage the game, the labor over each touch so as to be meticulous enough as to not lose the ball takes mental energy.

That ignores the rowdy and loud crowd of Cavalier supporters who attended the match and made the environment competitively unfriendly.

With each progressive pass, the supporters grew louder and louder, pushing their club on. Despite the total match attendance being announced at 650, the passion from the fans was noted by Noonan and credited the locals for the challenge they brought as a test for his side. 

“These games are difficult, and it's an unfamiliar opponent who's doing really well and at the top of their league,” Noonan said “Understanding what these games can look like and the challenges of being on the road and different atmospheres, different stadiums and how to navigate that, because you saw tonight in moments where the crowd's into it and the moments where we're taking on pressure, how do guys deal with that?

“I think the guys responded well. It's certainly good to get a win.” 

Cavalier FC sit atop their league and had looked unstoppable of late, winning four of their last five matches and going undefeated in their last 11 in league play. With Cavalier being in the middle of their league schedule, compared to FCC playing their first competitive match of the season, the style of play The Destroyers deployed – focusing on direct, quick and long passes while otherwise sitting back on defense and packing the box to stump the FCC attack – also presented challenges.

FCC owned well over 70 percent of possession, tallied 28 shots and logged over 660 completed passes, but struggled to put the final shot on net with only seven of the 28 shots reaching their target.

“Just didn't take our opportunities,” Noonan said. “There were plenty of goals there I think for us.

“A few of them on set pieces, I thought we were dangerous there, but just a little sloppy. I know that at times it was difficult to control the ball; you could see that on some of the touches and just the final pass. … But credit to Cavalier, they made it difficult in terms of some of the moments in transition, some of the direct play where the knockdowns … if we weren't good with our clearances, our headers, if we didn't move with the play, they put us under some pressure. So it certainly made the game difficult, but plenty to look at and see where we could have been, I think, more composed at times.”

Santos opened the scoring on the night and ensured FCC ultimately earned the game-winning-goal with the clean sheet, but the night's best moment belonged to Pinto who secured the victory in the 87th minute by putting a shot on net that beat the keeper to the far post.

It was an extra special moment for the 21-year-old homegrown player as his parents had flown to Kingston to see their son play. Pinto, hailing from North Carolina but has Jamaican heritage, also had several distant relatives in the audience to see him play for the first time. 

Starting the match as a reserve, Pinto came on in the 83rd minute and connected with his longtime teammate Quimi Ordoñez for the goal. Ordoñez, another FCC homegrown, also assisted on Pinto’s first goal with FC Cincinnati 2, a connection that Ordońez made sure to remind Pinto of after the game in the tunnels of National Stadium.

FC Cincinnati started the season on a high note with a win on foreign soil in the continent's greatest club tournament. A feather in their cap for sure, but they can't rest on their laurels with their MLS season starting Sunday.

“We should be confident. With a two-goal lead, and we didn't concede,” Noonan said of his squad. “So just in terms of how this competition is structured, it's favorable. But by no means is it done. … We have a game in between so we can't think about the second leg just yet, but when we get there, the guys will understand that we need to start the game strong and not think that we're comfortable because it changes quickly.”

Cavalier F.C. vs FC Cincinnati - Concacaf Champions Cup Round One First Leg