FC Cincinnati ramp up for playoffs with 2-2 result vs Atlanta United FC

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After a frenetic first half, FC Cincinnati finished their final regular season match of the 2023 campaign with a 2-2 draw against Atlanta United FC Saturday night at TQL Stadium.

Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner Luciano Acosta’s header just before halftime evened the score, helping The Orange and Blue cap off a historic regular season with a 20-5-9 record (69 points) and a 13-2-2 home mark to solidify the best record in FC Cincinnati’s MLS history.

“Overall it was just a chaotic game,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said postgame. “So that's what we have to fix.

“I think in the past when I've used that word the games looks similar to this. And until we find consistency in just playing in a more simple way and having the quality on the ball that you need, in big moments and in big games... it'll be a struggle.”

As their final tuneup before the postseason, Noonan indicated he was looking for more out of the performance, but will use the match to help evaluate and adjust as the postseason arrives.

“It wasn't a complete performance. But you can look on the other side of it and say there's some things that you analyze,” Noonan said. “I wouldn't say there's any panic, it's just concern over some of the things that we did on the field tonight in how the game played out."

The Orange and Blue have played with targets on their backs for a long time now, being the top team in the table for as long as they have been, and once again had to face off with a team with a lot on the line and looking to prove themselves against the league’s top team.

“Everybody wants to play Cincinnati. It’s always going to be a final, it’s not going to be easy,” defender Alvas Powell said. “Everybody is coming here to give us a good fight and give us a run for our money. So no game is easy. At this time of the season it just gets harder and harder. We just need to stick together and just take it one game at a time.”

FC Cincinnati enter the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs with the number one seed and home-field advantage. FCC will await the winner of the Eastern Conference Wild Card matchup between No. 8 seed New York Red Bulls and No. 9 seed Charlotte FC taking place later this week at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. The winner of the Wild Card round will then travel to TQL Stadium for the first game in the Round One Best-of 3-series with the winner advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

With the result, FC Cincinnati tied the record for fourth most points in MLS history with 69 and the most points earned at home in a single-season with 41. With the top seed, FCC will play just one match on the road in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Leapin’ Lucho equalizes before half

Acosta earned his 17th goal of the season with seconds remaining in the first half, leaping in front of Atlanta United FC goalkeeper Brad Guzan and heading home a beautiful pass from Álvaro Barreal.

“We see how he's able to play the game and use his body in an intelligent way to give advantages,” Noonan said of Acosta’s header. “It's not something we typically see in the form of how he scores goals. It was a well executed cross and good timing from him.”

Acosta also collected an assist on FCC’s first goal by Dominique Badji in the 25th minute, earning the captain a multi-goal contribution for the 10th time this season which leads all of MLS. It was also the seventh time this season that Acosta contributed at least one goal and one assist in a match, also the most in MLS.

With the helper, Barreal earned his ninth assist of the season, equaling his total from 2022. The assist came off of his lesser-preferred right foot, adding to the uniqueness of the goal from the otherwise classic Orange and Blue combination of Argentines.

“The first half wasn't really what we expected, but I mean, I think we were pleased with the half,” FCC goalkeeper Roman Celentano said. “We found a way to tie it up somehow with some Lucho magic with the hair gel.”

Celentano tested early, visitors open the scoring

Atlanta United FC were the aggressors early, challenging FC Cincinnati in the first 20 minutes of play by owning 65.8 percent possession through the opening run of play with three shots on goal and six shots before FCC could earn their first.

The first real test came in the eighth minute when Celentano was able to charge Atlanta attacker Xande Silva, making himself big to deflect away the shot attempt. The save was his 84th of the season and negated an assured goal from Atlanta.

Unfortunately, four minutes later with Atlanta continuing to give pressure in the FCC box, Celentano could not make another miraculous save, with Giorgos Giakoumakis scoring Atlanta’s first goal of the night after being set up in the open by Thiago Almada and Saba Lobjanidze in the 12th minute.

“For us, it's just about making better decisions when we have the ball to make sure you don't give them opportunities to break faster or pick us apart,” Celentano said of the chaotic first half. “We figured it out eventually in the second half … so we just go from there.”

The trio of Atlanta players would combine again before the half ended, with Giakoumakis scoring again from a crossing feed from Almada in the 32nd minute.

With four saves on the evening though, Celentano set a FC Cincinnati MLS record with 87 saves on the season. The record tops his personal best set in his 2022 rookie season where he made 84 stops.

Powell earns first assist as FCC even the score

FC Cincinnati equalized the score in the first half when Badji came flying into the box to finish a pass just in front of Guzan, scoring his fifth goal of the season. Powell earned his first goal contribution of the season by weighting a perfectly-timed ground cross to Badji that beat two defenders and was perfectly synced with the strikers run.

The goal was the 200th MLS regular season goal in FC Cincinnati history. Acosta was also credited with an assist in the aftermath of the goal for his pass in the build up, giving him 14 on the season, tied for third in the league.

The Orange and Blue go a man up

FC Cincinnati gained a significant advantage in the 51st minute when Atlanta’s Almada was booked for a foul on Yerson Mosquera away from the play, sending the Columbian center back to the ground in pain and requiring the medical team to treat him before resuming play. Almada, who assisted on both Atlanta goals and leads MLS in assists, kicked Mosquera in the ankle as he ran past him to seal off a pass.