In all-Ohio Eastern Conference Final FC Cincinnati falls to Columbus Crew, ends 2023 season

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After taking a 2-0 lead at halftime in the MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Final, FC Cincinnati could not secure the victory and fell 3-2 in extra time to Columbus Crew. FCC suffered defeat at home for the first time in playoff history, and just the third time in 2023.

The Orange and Blue conceded twice in the final 15 minutes of the match to send the game to extra time and allowed a third goal in the 115th minute to hand Columbus Crew the victory and send them on to the 2023 MLS Cup. 

After defending hard for over 90 minutes, FC Cincinnati looked like the more fatigued side late as the oppressive pressure the Crew brought hemmed FCC in their own half for most of the final hour of play. 

“There's not much really to say,” goalkeeper Roman Celentano said “The game kind of speaks for itself. Biggest game in club history against our rivals. We're up and then we're not. So it's on us. They're a good team, but it's on us.” 

Postgame, FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan blamed the loss on himself, praising his players’ emotional, high-effort performance that saw many individuals (including Celentano, Ian Murphy and Alvas Powell) have breakout performances in new, heightened roles.

“Guys gave everything, but they just wore us down. The guys gave everything. I cannot fault them. There were things that I could have done better to manage that situation,” Noonan said postgame.

“I'll look back at it and probably blame none of those players … they gave everything, and I'm proud of them for that. I'm disappointed for them for everything they put into this season to be able to position themselves to play in a Cup final. … I'll take a look at myself first and see how I learn from this and how we get this right in the future.”

Emotions ran deep on the field and in the locker room postgame. Álvaro Barreal was consoled by his father, by Lucho Acosta and his children. Celentano struggled to find the words to describe the feeling. After all was said and done, Acosta returned to the pitch one final time with his family to walk the field and soak in his home, and what this game meant.

“A lot of emotions, difficult to express after something like that,” Acosta said. “I just think it's been an incredible year for this team and for it to end like that was not what we envisioned.

“Thinking about the fans, they didn't deserve this. We didn't deserve this. So just a lot of anger, frustration, and just thinking about what things are going to be like and how we're going to move forward to next year.” 

90 minutes just not enough 

With the game all square at 2-2 after 90 minutes, The Orange and Blue headed for extra time for the fifth time this season. In games that needed additional play beyond full-time, FCC owned a record of 3-2 with all five being decided in penalty kicks.

Columbus dominated the first 15-minute period of extra time by hemming The Orange and Blue into their own third with progressive passing and patient movement. By the first period's end Columbus owned 86 percent possession and 73 percent advantage per stats. 

In the second period of extra time, Noonan went to his bench for extra energy to see out the match. Marco Angulo and Sergio Santos were brought on to replace Junior Moreno and Brandon Vazquez, who had played 105+ minutes of soccer to this point. 

With five minutes to play in extra time, Columbus found the match winner as Christian Ramiriez found the crossing header to score on an open frame. 

Vazquez takes the lead

After a frenetic opening to the match which saw Columbus dominate play and possession through the first dozen minutes, FC Cincinnati capitalized on their moment when Vazquez put away a world class strike from steps away from the Columbus Crew keeper to give The Orange and Blue a 1-0 lead in the 14th minute. 

In making a crossing route in front of the Columbus goal, Vazquez was marked by two defenders but Aaron Boupendza found the perfect moment to thread the needle and feed a pass into the striker. But Vazquez wasn't done, he took a step and a touch to create space for himself, turned and fired to the far post from close distance and beat Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte for the game’s opening goal. 

In a match where score was going to be vital, FCC getting the opening goal was key. Columbus was the highest scoring offense in the regular season, but FC Cincinnati scored first and The Orange and Blue went 17-0-4 in MLS play this season. Three wins better than anyone else.

The goal was Vazquez’s second career MLS Cup Playoffs finish, scoring last season in a 2-1 win over New York Red Bulls. It brought his goal total on the season across all competitions with FC Cincinnati to 17 and  his lifetime to 43 with The Orange and Blue. The assist, provided by Boupendza was his third in Orange and Blue and his ninth goal contribution on the season in 18 games.

Celentano stands up 

Celentano answered the bell in the first half, making miraculous save after miraculous save to keep the league's hottest offense off the score sheet. With three first half saves, Celentano turned away 0.7 xG but made the highlight reel stop in the 36th minute when he dived to turn away a blistering shot from Cucho to keep Columbus scoreless. 

The defense as a whole tidied up business for their keeper, furiously running and clearing chances away. FCC defenders make 26 clearances to Columbus’ five, and 40 duels on the evening to keep Columbus at bay. 

In extra time Celentano made another game saving stop when Christian Ramirez was left wide open to put a flying scissor kick on frame that the goalkeeper of the year nominee was able to parry.  

The MVP makes another magical moment

With time running out in the first half, a long ball to Vazquez created an opportunity for FCC with just seconds left before the halftime whistle. Vazquez was dragged down and a foul was called on the edge of the box for a free kick in striking distance.

Barreal took the free kick by rolling a set up pass to Acosta who took the low driving strike from just beyond the 18-yard box and found the back of the net to double the FC Cincinnati lead to 2-0. 

With just enough chaos in front of the net, the Columbus keeper reacted late to the MVP’s strike and it curled past his outstretched diving hand and into the side netting. The goal was Acosta’s second of the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs and the third of his career in Orange and Blue - the most in club history. Barreal earned his second assist in as many games for FC Cincinnati. 

Columbus equalizes, late

After scoring a first goal in the 75th minute to bring the game to 2-1, Columbus found an equalizer when FC Cincinnati couldn't clear a ball in the box and got a clean strike on net that beat Celenanto in close. 

It was the second time this season FCC had conceded two goals in the second half to Columbus despite being the best defensive team in the second half conceding the fewest goals by a wide margin.

Back of the net, but no goal 

On two occasions within five minutes in the second half, FC Cincinnati appeared to add a third goal to their lead but was ultimately waived off by officials.

The first came when Boupendza was ruled offside after dancing around the keeper and finishing with flair. On review it was clear the striker was off so little protest was made after the fact. 

The second was again on Boupendza but this time it was far less clear. When putting a strike on goal from close distance, the ball ricocheted off the keeper and back to Boupendza who found himself tangled with the keeper and a defender but managed to get the ball to roll in. Unfortunately, in the chaos the ball touched Boupendza’s hand and was called.