FC Cincinnati earned three points on Saturday night against the Columbus Crew in an unforgettable chapter of the Hell is Real derby. The result marks Cincinnati’s first win against the Crew under Head Coach Pat Noonan and extends their lead atop the Eastern Conference table and Supporters’ Shield standings to five points.
“That was a great win,” said Noonan after the match. “What an atmosphere. What a game. I thought both teams played really well in different phases of the game. High energy, the individual quality that you saw on the field on both sides, to be able to open the game up and get each team attacking the goal made for an entertaining evening, and I'm really thrilled for our guys to come out on top against a very good team.”
PRESS CONFERENCE | Pat Noonan | May 20, 2023
The teams combined for five goals in a back-and-forth affair that saw the Orange and Blue score twice, concede twice, then go ahead again and hold off a late Columbus charge.
“I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel different,” said Noonan. “This was a neat experience when you knew it was going to be difficult, and it was. But to be able to win against that team in front of our fans was important.”
FC Cincinnati were off to the races just 17 minutes into the match as Luciano Acosta sent the Bailey into a frenzy with his fourth goal of the season. Like so many times before, the move started and ended with Acosta, who now leads the team in goals following Saturday night’s performance.
“The expectations are always high because of what he's capable of and you see when he's engaged,” said Noonan. “He's a smart player. He understands how to go to the ball. He understands when to go to the ball. He was really important, and we had a good conversation the two of us in the lead up to this stretch of how important his leadership is going to be, and his play is going to be, and he stepped up tonight. He was a captain.”
Acosta doubled Cincinnati’s lead from the spot in the 23rd and Brandon Vazquez looked as if he had grabbed a third moments later, but the goal was disallowed for an offside flag.
Lucas Zelarayán and the Crew were able to pull one back in the 40th minute before halftime, giving the visitors confidence and momentum heading into the break.
“At 2-0, regardless of if the (Vazquez) goal counts or not, the aftermath of that was building,” said Noonan. “There were some certain moments when they had the ball and they were pinning us in and I thought our midfield, too, with Junior [Moreno] and Obi [Nwobodo] were getting pulled too far to one side.”
Columbus opened the second half in the same way they ended the first. Malte Amundson notched his second of the year in the 52nd minute to bring things level, and it was game on at TQL Stadium.
“They took that momentum. They're very good with the ball, they space the field well, and if you lose that individual battle or the game opens up, you see the playmaking they have with some of their attackers,” said Noonan. “So, it just became very difficult for us to get to the ball. And then when we didn't have the ball, I just thought we lacked a little bit of composure at times to connect the right passes or had the right idea but sloppy passes. That's why I think we lost momentum, because we still did very well in playing direct at times and creating chances from that when they had a high line.”
A moment of controlled chaos saw the Orange and Blue net a third, the match-winner, against the Crew. It was Acosta once again, forcing a turnover from Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte attempting to play out of the box.
Vazquez collected the ball and played distributer to substitute Yuya Kubo – who made his ninth appearance with FC Cincinnati against the Crew, the most in club history – who set up on a tee the opportunity for Junior Moreno to bury the go-ahead goal.
Roman Celentano, who made five saves on the night, made an incredible save in the third minute of stoppage time to keep the Crew from snatching a late point in what has seemed to define the Hell is Real rivalry in recent meetings.
The miraculous save was required for a close-range effort which everyone in the stadium for a half-second might have thought was bound for the back of the net – including Pat Noonan.
“It looked that way and it felt that way,” said Noonan of the shot seeming destined for the back of the net. “Because when the ball is redirected, when you don't get initial contact and the ball is redirected to the back post, it's very hard for guys to keep their marks on set pieces. And how he comes over and makes the play, I have to see it again, but it looked in the moment like a world-class save. If it was going on goal, which it looked like it was, and he's able to get his hands on it, that's probably the save of this season for us.”
FC Cincinnati are now 8-0-0 at home in front of the Orange and Blue faithful and 9-1-3 on the season. And while the early season success has some talking about Cincinnati as a true MLS Cup contender, Pat Noonan knows there is a long way to go.
“I don't want to grade us being the best team,” said Noonan. “If you just look at points, yes, we're at the top of the table. But if you look at consistency and performances, we're starting to be more consistent in how we played the game on top of winning. I'm not too concerned if we're the best team right now. I want to be the best team, and I know these guys want to be the best team, at the end of the year. We're on that path. Whether we're the best or not, that will be for others to judge, but I'm proud of where they're at in the way they're playing.”
After four straight at home across all competitions, FC Cincinnati will now have three straight road games, beginning with a quick turnaround on Tuesday to face the New York Red Bulls this in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. from Red Bull Arena, and the match will be streamed for free on the Bleacher Report YouTube channel and the B/R app.
After that, Noonan’s side will head to the Rocky Mountains for a battle with the Colorado Rapids on Saturday, May 27 followed by another midweek match on May 31 with New York City FC.
FC Cincinnati’s next chance to win again in front of the home fans comes against Chicago Fire FC on June 3. Tickets are available at FCCincinnati.com/Tickets or by calling (513) 977-5425 (KICK).