FC Cincinnati look to take lessons learned from Concacaf Champions Cup pain to MLS play, future competitions

20240314 MTYvsFCC Match 136

MONTERREY, Mexico - At night's end, a rabid fan base in Estadio BBVA cheered and cried over its club advancing. FC Cincinnati had to sit in that chaos and swallow its fate. After two premier performances, that warranted a better outcome than an early exit, FC Cincinnati are headed stateside out of the Concacaf Champions Cup.

Scoring opportunities were abound but FC Cincinnati finally found a goal in the second half of the match—a golazo from Luciano Acosta that may now be lost to time due to the outcome—and went 12 rounds with the Liga MX leaders, the top club in the Concacaf Club Index, and consensus favorites in the tournament. They pushed Rayados to the brink at times.

The passion was clear. There was no layoff. FC Cincinnati rolled out their A squad, kept their foot on the gas and fought for 90-plus minutes. Acosta rallied his troops at every opportunity, Yuya Kubo battled through every CF Monterrey player who dared to step in his way for every 50/50 ball, Matt Miazga pushed for each and every inch and Pavel Bucha ran like he was mad at the ground.

From the get-go, it was made clear that it would take especially impactful contact to earn a foul, let alone a card, leading to one of the more physical games in the club's recent memory. Still, FCC persisted, fighting through every extracurricular scuffle to win possession, resulting in plenty of fireworks between both sides. Sparks that may have been warranted.

But it wasn't enough. CF Monterrey played like they were in midseason form (because they are) and as if they have been playing together for years (because they have). Passes moved into spaces that seemed open, but were picked up quickly by a running Monterrey man, making it seem like the passer and receiver communicated telepathically. The Liga MX side looked like 11 men who knew exactly where each other were at all times and where they would be next.

And still, despite being less than a month into the season with significant turnover and playing in perhaps the most hostile environment the club has ever played in, FCC went blow for blow.

"The way the guys competed out there today … I was really pleased with how they went after the game," Pat Noonan said after the match. "Even going down the goal in a difficult moment right before the break, we came out in a strong way to get the goal and get some momentum.

"It's disappointing, but the guys gave everything so I can't be you know, I can't be more proud of how they went about it despite the feeling of loss."

From the coaching staff down, the goals FC Cincinnati have set for themselves include winning every competition they compete in. It is part of the ultra-competitive spirit that drives this core to win and lift trophies. A Round of 16 exit for some may be considered a victory or something to celebrate. To play in continental competition is an earned privilege and a status quo marker for the best of the best in MLS. Still, given all of the complications, it would perhaps be easy to make the excuse as to why performances didn't meet the mark. But for this collection of players, coaches and staff members it stings; just getting here isn't good enough. Lifting that trophy is the goal, as it is for all competitions they have and will play in.

The starting lineup is an excellent example of this ideology in action. With a league match on Sunday, and playing their seventh fixture across all competitions in just 22 days, rotating the lineup for a match that FCC started the game down a goal for had some intellectual merit. But Thursday was an elimination game, so Noonan went with his best lineup.

And for most of Thursday's game in Mexico, it was enough. FCC generated plenty of chances, scored a goal, and kept Rayados in reach defensively. But eventually, fatigue set in, and the final push just was not there. For the full 90 minutes, FCC kept their foot on the gas.

That being said, lessons can be learned. The experience gained is important.

"We'll look at the game and what we could have done better," Noonan said plainly. "As a group, experiencing this competition for the first time, recognizing the importance of that home-field advantage, and making sure that in the first leg, you find a way to go into the second leg with a lead. That's obviously vital, especially when you're coming to Liga MX teams, which are so strong at home.

"It was also a challenge as far as where we're at as a group in trying to find our best 11 and understand some of the new faces, how we can improve the individual and overall play. We'll take a look at it, but I'm pleased with how we went about this competition with an expectation to win."

Even in Noonan's answer, there is a baseline belief that FCC expects to be back in this tournament regularly. No small feat. Seattle Sounders, who joined MLS in 2009, have only played in Champions Cup/League seven times, the most of any MLS club, 50 percent of their seasons.

But the standard is high for a reason.

As FC Cincinnati will not (albeit controversially) be able to participate in the U.S. Open in 2024 after MLS’ decision announced earlier in the month, The Orange and Blue will need to either: finish top three in 2024 Leagues Cup, win the 2024 Supporters’ Shield, win the 2024 Eastern Conference, finish in the top four of the Supporters’ Shield standings, or win MLS Cup to be back in this tournament.

"We try to represent this club and the city each time we've gone on the field," Acosta said. "For the first time that we've competed in the Champions Cup, I thought we did okay. But we leave sad because we wanted to win.

"We didn't achieve what we wanted to achieve, but I'm just proud we fought until the very end."

FC Cincinnati now turn their attention to MLS play as they will not have to juggle two competitions simultaneously for the remainder of 2024. When the MLS schedule breaks for Leagues Cup, FCC will focus exclusively on that, same as they would for MLS Cup Playoffs when that time comes. The group will travel directly to New England from Monterrey and have to refocus quickly; while FCC is undefeated in league play, the results (especially the ones at home) haven't always left people satisfied.

Ideally, the additional four games help position the squad to be better moving forward. More playing time means more opportunities for evaluation, more time to learn about individuals and how they fit into the large group, and more time to understand where the squad is and what is to be expected moving forward. Noonan highlighted this in his takeaways from the tournament earlier.

But the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that FC Cincinnati—even when not at their strongest—can compete with the best of the best in the region. If they perform like they did in the two legs against Monterrey, there's no reason they can't win every other competition they play in.