It took 10 penalty kickers and a full 90 minutes. Still, FC Cincinnati completed the sweep of the New York Red Bulls in the Round One Best-of-3 playoff series and advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Roman Celentano made the save on the Red Bulls’ 10th attempt to secure the 1-1 (8-7) shootout victory on Saturday night at Red Bull Arena.
The second playoff game of the season had all the makings of an instant classic and will provide another chapter into the growing story of the rivalry between FC Cincinnati and New York Red Bulls as the history between the two clubs grows. For the second time in as many seasons, FC Cincinnati have knocked the Red Bulls out of the MLS Cup Playoffs, and for the third time in two years, FCC have knocked RBNY out of a cup competition on their own grounds.
From the opening whistle, the New York Red Bulls brought their signature high press and intensity to the match, with FCC seeing it and responding in kind, setting the tone for the knockout match. With referee Victor Rivas allowing for the more physical style of play, not issuing a card until the 39th minute despite double-digit fouls being whistled against RBNY, it was on FCC to match the physicality and keep composure.
“I thought they’re ready for it,” FCC head coach Pat Noonan said after the match. “A lot of fouls, both sides, small calls missed I know it was heavily skewed with their fouls over ours. But you got to figure out how to play in games like that and I think in these two games the guys were up for it and kept their composure for the most part in a good way. There are still some moments where guys just need to get on with plays and think about playing and less about communication with the official. So, it’s something we’ll address.”
When all was said and done, eight yellow cards had been issued, 34 fouls called and RBNY head coach Troy Lesesne was sent off with a red card for dissent before the 90-minute whistle was blown and the match was sent to penalty kicks.
Every FC Cincinnati player on the pitch, save the goalkeeper, was required to shoot PKs, with captain Luciano Acosta leading things off and burying his attempt. FCC’s 10th and final attempt by Junior Moreno was the one that earned victory as he blasted it past a diving Red Bulls goalkeeper. Celentano was then able to make the diving save on Andres Reyes to secure the win. Every FCC attempt was put on frame.
“I’m just think I need to make a save at some point,” Celentano said. “The boys kept putting theirs away and giving me a chance to make a save to win the game… You just got to focus on the moment and focus on who’s in front of you and not worry about ‘oh, it’s been six now I haven’t made to save it’s been seven and I haven’t made a save.”
“Everybody fought, everybody gave everything for this team and this win. So, I am very happy for our team,” striker Aaron Boupendza said. “We all know this teams’ objectives, and this team is family. I am very happy…we fought hard.”
FC Cincinnati will host every playoff game from here on out at TQL Stadium, including potentially the MLS Cup Final. Their next opponent will be the winner of the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution Round One series. The Orange and Blue will have to wait three weeks for the next round as MLS pauses for the International Window in mid-November.
The three-week break between matches is unconventional but may be necessary. FCC left the match batter and bruised, with two players replaced due to injury and many others left with knocks needing rest and attention.
Weather the opening storm
In the first 20 minutes, The Orange and Blue weathered an initial onslaught of attackers, pressure and physicality that the New York Red Bulls hoped to set the tone with. While very few dangerous moments came of the play, with just one shot truly having even a chance before sailing high off the crossbar, FCC was forced to play inside their own half for most of the period.
The Red Bulls out-fouled FC Cincinnati 8-2 in the opening 20 minutes but were never punished with a booking despite appeals from captain Luciano Acosta. The tensions hit a fever pitch when Red Bulls midfielder Frankie Amaya brought down Santiago Arias away from the ball, causing a coming together in front of the ref.
“It's part of it, you have games like that. Physical, fouls, how the officials are able to manage that is challenging, and top players that have been in these moments before and understand how to navigate a game like that don't let it affect their play,” Noonan said. “A majority of our guys ... I thought handled the type of game that we saw in a good way.”
The teams had to be separated again in the 42nd minute when Red Bulls forward Tom Barlow swept the legs out from under Yerson Mosquera and gave a full kick to the defender’s shin. The foul prompted Acosta and Matt Miazga to rush to Mosquera’s defense, causing a scene near the referee.
Despite all the physical play from RBNY, the first card went to Santiago Arias, who took a professional foul in the 39th minute to slow down a fast break by sliding to tackle the ball carrier.
Red Bulls find the opener before half
With the first 45 minutes just coming to an end, and the official just about to put up the clock for stoppage time, the New York Red Bulls struck first, scoring after a chaotic moment in the box and an unlucky bounce found Barlow in front of the net where he was able to just put enough english on the shot to ricochet off FCC goalkeeper Roman Celentano and dribble into the net. It was the first goal scored by RBNY in the playoff series.
Moments later, RBNY had an opportunity for a second goal when a shot into the box was checked for a handball. After being reviewed, no penalty was given, resulting in a corner that was ultimately the last play of the first half.
Boupendza places it perfectly
Boupendza found the equalizer for FC Cincinnati in the 75th minute when he and Acosta teamed up for a brilliant fast break goal. Boupendza won the ball in the midfield, dumped off a pass to the captain, and then the duo made a run finished off by a perfectly placed shot that snuck inside the post and past a diving keeper.
Acosta was able to create the moment by shielding his body from a defender charging with him up the middle. With Brandon Vazquez chasing up the other wing, the Red Bulls defenders were split in how to defend the opportunity. Ultimately, the captain was able to lead a pass perfectly to Boupendza, who equaled the performance with a shot you couldn’t have placed more perfectly if you did it by hand.
"(Boupendza) performed in a way that we've seen previously. Made a big play in a big moment,” Noonan added. “It's not always easy to jump off the bench and quickly have an impact.”
“I thought he had an important impact in the big moments. Of course, you can look at some of the passes that can be better, but you could say that for the entire group. He came up with a big way, that's not an easy finish. And certainly, gave us some momentum and I think we took that goal and saw the remainder of the game in a really good way."
The goal equalized the game and brought new life to the second half. The assist was Acosta’s second of the postseason and the first goal of Boupendza’s MLS postseason career.
Early and unfortunate changes
Attacker Dominique Badji was forced to come off in the 34th minute due to an injury. After being tackled in the attack zone, Badji stayed down and required medical attention from team trainers. Badji was able to walk under his own power after being evaluated for a few minutes, but was unable to continue. Boupendza readied quickly and was subbed after Badji exited the field. It is the first time since September 2022 that FCC had made a first half substitution in a competitive match, and the first time since October 2021 that the sub was made when not the result of a weather delay.
Obinna Nwobodo also exited the game due to an apparent injury. After receiving medical attention and leaving the pitch, Nwobodo initially tried to return to the match, but was replaced by Yuya Kubo in the 69th minute.
Drama in the final moments
In stoppage time, after what would have been the game-winning goal that was struck by Acosta from a corner kick, the referee ruled that a foul had been committed on the goalkeeper and thus the goal was rescinded.
Acosta stepped to the corner and curled it perfectly into a dangerous spot where a crowd of Boupendza and Arias were able to cause enough havoc to have the ball cross the line before the keeper could punch it out. The Orange and Blue celebrated the goal but were left heart broken when the call was brought back.
Then during penalty kicks, another yellow card was issued creating future problems for FC Cincinnati. Miazga, after cashing in his penalty kick attempt, gestured towards the crowd with heart hands and welcomed their jeers as a former New York Red Bulls fan and New Jersey native. The referee then showed Miazga a second yellow card on the evening after earning a first in the 90+9 for dissent, bringing into question his eligibility for the next playoff round. Because the card came in penalty kicks, it is not the typical red card given after a second yellow, but because it is his third of the Round One Miazga would be suspended for his next match. FCC head coach Noonan indicated they were looking into the appeal process, as all yellow cards leading to a suspension can be appealed, but are planning for not having him.