FC Cincinnati let performance do the talking for them, remind all who are defending Supporters’ Shield Champions in 6-1 rout over Inter Miami CF

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The Orange and Blue didn’t intend on making a statement Saturday night at TQL Stadium. They wanted to win the game, they knew they had to win if they wanted to continue their path to a second Supporters’ Shield, and they wanted to perform to a level they could be proud of.

But what they did – in a 6-1 thrashing over the then leading Inter Miami CF, a wire to wire domination over the league’s publicly claimed “top team” – was send a message to MLS as a whole. FC Cincinnati is not messing around.

“No no no, nothing like that,” FCC captain and MLS MVP Luciano Acosta said when asked if his club wanted to send a message to the league. “We came to play our game. We played our game, they played theirs. No message stuff like that. But we're just us.”

‘We're just us,’ is somehow still a very loud message. Not a boisterous or arrogant one. But it's a loud, meaningful one full of all the deserved confidence that was earned on Saturday night.

A message was sent that Luciano Acosta is still the MLS MVP and is only getting better. They sent a message that Luca Orellano is not only an MLS All-Star but one of the league's elite attacking players who can play on either side and anywhere vertically up the field. They said that even without Matt Miazga and Nick Hagglund, Miles Robinson can lead the defensive backline with exceptional prowess. That players like Pavel Bucha and Obinna Nwobodo dominate the midfield. Reminded that DeAndre Yedlin is not only one of the most impactful defenders in the league, but one of the most versatile and valuable to winning play. Yuya Kubo continued to prove to everyone that commitment and hard work pays off while setting new personal and club records.

But again, they didn’t say that. No one said that. Only those on the outside looking in will say that. FC Cincinnati, from Acosta to Orellano and everyone in between, let their play do the talking after the most dominant and exciting performance of the year over an Inter Miami CF team that has been riding high.

“A great performance. Guys stepped up tonight,” Head Coach Pat Noonan opened with his post game presser. “I'm really happy for our guys…You have to beat good teams if you want to be at the top of the table or the top of the conference and play home games in the playoffs, and like I said, guys stepped up tonight, both teams missing key pieces. We won't look past that. We'll see them at the end of August, and it'll look entirely different based on likely personnel on the field. They still have a very strong team, and that's why I'm very pleased about the performance.”

Noonan clearly came into this game with an idea in mind, though. An idea that took courage and confidence given the circumstance. FC Cincinnati has very comfortably relied on an opening formation – deploying a two striker duo up top with Acosta the attacking midfielder – and it would have been completely understandable if in this, one of the most important games of the season against a clear Supporters’ Shield competitor and favorite, to stick with what works.

But the manager went for something more. He shifted his formation to push Orellano further up the field so as to act as a second attacking midfielder alongside Acosta, used Kubo as the lone striker, and turned to veterans in Yedlin and Yamil Asad to bolster his back line as wing backs.

Moves rarely make managers look this ingenious as quickly as this one did.

“The idea was in anticipation of maybe a back four with the lone six,” Noonan explained, referring to the Inter Miami defensive line and the defensive midfielder ahead of them. “How could we occupy those spaces in front of the back line and, if we could get the timing right, when our center backs were on the ball we anticipated a front-three press.”

“So, how we used the wingbacks to be able to create those spaces for the attacking midfielders and how those guys came off the (back) line, we thought we could put Luca (Orellano) and Lucho (Acosta) in good spots, and if they could be able to turn and face goal, then we could utilize the legs of DeAndre (Yedlin) and Yamil (Asad) out wide and give us a run to goal. But I also thought having the front three structured like that could help us defensively adjust to a back three and a back four, because they had been showing both of those things recently, and there were ways where I thought it could be fluid in how we had to change if we needed to at the beginning of the game.”

It’s not the first time he’s used this particular formation. Earlier this year in an away match with New England Revolution, Noonan dropped forward Corey Baird deeper to play alongside Gerardo “Dado” Valenzuela in the two man attacking midfield, but didn’t nearly get the results he saw tonight.

In part, the difference in result could have stemmed from personnel differences. Luca Orellano dominated play through the midfield all evening, earning two assists in his new position while racing past the Inter Miami back line and dumping off passes to a wide open Yuya Kubo. Luciano Acosta similarly exploited the depleted Miami group by flexing his dribbling abilities to slash through lines of pressure to score and assist on goals.

But what made the two so impressive were their abilities as a duo (along with the play of Pavel Bucha and Obinna Nwobodo) to win balls in the midfield and control the pace of the game. Outside of small stretches, and certainly once FC Cincinnati took the lead and Inter Miami took a red card, the game was played entirely at the comfort and speed of FCC.

“The guys were clearly up for it. But it wasn't just about being up for it and working hard. You still have to make plays, and a lot of guys did that,” Noonan said. “You still have to have a level of focus and understanding of how we're trying to approach this game to have success. And (the players) have been pretty consistent about that all year.”

“It hasn't always looked like tonight. We know that. But the one thing you can say about them is they're consistent in being able to step on the field and expect to win games. So, a credit to their consistency over the course of two-thirds of the season thus far.”

“We knew this was a massive game,” Orellano added from the locker room postgame. “We knew we needed to win this but winning a game like this was very important for us. Now, you just gotta take it game by game and continue to grow.”

Orellano’s change of position was the most radical of the changes but it also paid the biggest dividends. The young Argentine said postgame he was familiar with the position, but it was the offensive freedom and confidence from his coaches and teammates to play further forward towards goal that gave him the courage to play the way he did.

“What a magnificent player,” FCC captain Acosta said of Orellano. “You know, he has the ability to play in so many different positions and he's got confidence. He's been playing with such confidence and playing very well. But up top, down below, it doesn't matter where he's gonna play, he's gonna take advantage of his opportunities.”

For a game very much defined by the offensive domination of FC Cincinnati, and The Orange and Blue basically putting the game away at the half with the fourth goal right before the whistle for the 45 minutes of break, there were still things to take away with how FCC saw out the game.

A lesser team, or rather, a less disciplined team would take that lead for granted and lose focus. They would perhaps concede a goal, take a punishing foul, or allow another team with nothing to lose to seep under their skin and invoke some kind of emotional outburst or confrontation that tarnishes the night.

Save for one truly unlucky moment on a narrowly mistimed tackle resulting in an Nwobodo yellow card (and suspension due to accumulation), even in that regard FC Cincinnati held strong and saw out the game with essentially no drama.

Not for Inter Miami’s lack of trying. As the match went on Inter Miami’s aggressiveness matched their desire to get back into the game, so with the visitors more willing to take risks with tackles, the game became far more physical and FCC were awarded more fouls.

With every foul came an opportunity for an FC Cincinnati player to take exception or offense, but virtually every time the FCC player got up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the business of the match. Spanish international star Sergio Busquests was sent off for dissent due to his inability to do just that, furthering the FCC advantage.

“We talked about game management at the break, because you're with a three-goal lead and you're on your home field and we have guys on yellow cards. So, how you manage the game will dictate how this second 45 can play out in our favor,” Noonan said of how his club approached the game. “Which we obviously, if you look at the score line, you win (the second half) 2-0. So, I'm pleased about that, (I’m pleased) that we didn't concede a goal and continued to defend in a good way…. I thought they managed the game in a good way in the second half.”

There’s a lot of work to be done yet as the season now rolls on. Not to rain on a parade, but with 12 games to play in the MLS season (albeit with a Summer Transfer Window very much still available for additions so league-wide change will come), FCC would need to win 11 of those 12 remaining games outright to secure the Supporters Shield again if given no help by any other teams.

But those are thoughts for another night. On this night, this perfect July evening in Cincinnati, Ohio it is ok to forget all that. Because on this night, FC Cincinnati are top of the table and tackled their nearest opponents in dominating fashion.

And the view from the top is pretty sweet.