FC Cincinnati prepare to defend home field advantage in knockout rounds of Leagues Cup, host Nashville SC first in Round of 32

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If you ask Pat Noonan, FC Cincinnati and Nashville SC aren’t necessarily ‘rivals.’ Two highly competitive and quality clubs who want to win every game they’re in? Sure. But not a full-on rivalry.

“We haven’t spoken of it as a rivalry, we’ve spoken of it as we have a really difficult opponent and one that we respect,” Noonan said before FC Cincinnati’s March 23 fixture with Nashville SC.

“I would call it very competitive games that have a good intensity … two teams that have been at the top of the table for a long period.”

Competitive, meaningful and important matchups are how rivalries are born, and rivalry or not, the Leagues Cup Round of 32 matchup will bring together two of the top clubs in MLS with a track record of having competitive and exciting matches, factors that Noonan considers key to developing a rivalry.

Since Nashville SC joined MLS in 2020, FCC and NSC have been neck and neck, with an all-time record of 2-2-2 between the clubs in six matches. 

It will be the third meeting between the two clubs in 2023, and the second time they have met at TQL Stadium in three weeks. FC Cincinnati won both matches, including defeating Nashville SC at home for the first time in MLS club history in their most recent meeting.

“It’s gonna be a tough game with a tough opponent,” FCC midfielder Junior Moreno said. “We’re gonna try to do the same things that we did in the last games, but they are a tough team.”

“A great rivalry is an exciting game every single time,” striker Brandon Vazquez said in March ahead of the first meeting with Nashville SC. “It’s a battle over status. ‘Who’s the king of Ohio’ or “Who’s the king of a region?’ … Every time we’ve played Nashville, it’s been a crazy game. So I’d say that’s a good rivalry.” 

In tandem with their passage to the knockout round of Leagues Cup, the rest of the tournament bracket has borne out favorably for The Orange and Blue, as all games in the central bracket would be played at TQL Stadium should FCC continue to win and advance. 

The opportunity to earn another home game at TQL Stadium was something that Noonan said he and the team felt was a key goal in the tournament, an opportunity only guaranteed by the fact that FCC won its group. 

“It’s very important,” Moreno said of the advantage of playing at home. “We are home, we are with our fans and our family. The motivation, confidence and the steadiness that we receive is a 100 percent help to us.” 

“(TQL Stadium) is a fortress for us,” Vazquez said. “So to keep the momentum going there it’s important to us. I think that’s exactly what we want to do.”

FC Cincinnati is undefeated at home this season, owning a 15-0-2 across all competitions, with one of the draws coming in the Leagues Cup opener, where FCC defeated Sporting Kansas City in penalty kicks. 

The opportunity exists to play every game in Leagues Cup at home. It would only be if LAFC advanced to the semifinals with FC Cincinnati that The Orange and Blue would have to travel for a match in the tournament before the final. 

If FCC makes the final, they would only have to travel if their opponent is New York Red Bulls, NYCFC, Philadelphia Union or FC Dallas.

FC Cincinnati has been strong in knockout competition this season, making the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals while also playing in league play, creating an environment that normalized quick turnarounds and unique lineups. 

With extra matches on the calendar due to Open Cup games, Noonan feels the experience in do-or-die competitions has prepared his team for the rigor and intensity a knockout stage presents.

“We had a stretch of eight games in 25 days,” Noonan said. “That forced us to make rotations, not just because of heavy legs, but because guys earned opportunities to get starts. 

“I think we have a better idea of the group of players that we can trust to start a game, but also the relationships on the field because we’ve had so many lineups. … I think our group is in a position (to compete) in this tournament in a confident way. We know we can rely on a larger group of players to help us find success.”