MLS Fact: FC Cincinnati and Philadelphia Union will play their 10th all-time match this Saturday at TQL Stadium.
Also a Fact: For the first time, FCC owns the pregame swagger. No longer the Aspirant, the Apprentice, the Sparring Partner or the Little Brother. Instead, the Alpha. The side with not a speck of appetite to balm a loss with the warm glow of a learning experience.
“I’d say that’s accurate,” affirms FCC general manager Chris Albright. “We’ve probably been the underdog every time we’ve played them. And this time, probably, we won’t be. At this juncture, I think we’ve earned that.”
The numbers trumpet it. FCC is 4-0-2, in first place in the Eastern Conference, while the Union sits at 2-3-1. Last year’s results speak, too. The Orange and Blue won their first game in the series and also drew the road matchup.
But the Union, from the start, were a side Cincinnati’s fans looked up to as if based on Olympus. Except when the fans got mad, that is. The latter happened in 2019, when some fans alleged suspiciously sharp practices on Philly’s part in a trade involving SuperDraft picks. But the former fixation, the Olympus one, lasted much longer and was much more empirically based.
While FCC won just 14 games over its first three seasons (2019-21), the Union claimed three points 44 times. The Union finished third, first and then second in the Eastern Conference. FCC’s record vs. Philly through ’21 was a bruised 0-5-1. The Union was a franchise known around the league for doing it right.
So the swagger was all for the Philly fans. The Union logo, with its powerfully coiled serpent, imbued the wearer with implicit bragging rights in certain establishments.
And as the ’21 season wound to a close, before it could be known that the ’22 Orange and Blue would actually do just fine, the “Little Brother” trope was birthed. Prior to the start of the season, FCC hired Albright, the Union technical director and former player. Two months later, Pat Noonan, a top assistant to Philly head coach Jim Curtin for those aforementioned 44 wins, was secured as FCC head coach. FCC indeed looked to be following a Philadelphia model.
So what, FCC fans would say now. The team dramatically improved with the Albright and Noonan hires, so who cares if they were promoted from posts at the Union?
Fair point. But even as FCC were proving itself a seriously good MLS squad throughout the ’22 season, the Union were still soaring far ahead. Philly lost only five games last season, the second-lowest total in league history, so throughout the campaign, as FCC fought furiously to keep a first-ever playoff spot from slipping away, any thoughts of the Union still involved a gaze up the mountainside. Cincy’s win and draw in the regular season were seen as possible aberrations, and Cincy was still seen in a junior partner’s role when they came to Subaru Park for an Eastern Conference semifinal on Oct. 20.
And give it up to Philly, they advanced and sent FCC home. Then they advanced to MLS Cup, losing in arguably the best final in league history, a 3-3 draw that went to LAFC in a shootout. But Cincinnati’s 1-nil road setback was about as close as any defeat could be. Cincinnati led in possession (54.2), corners (8-4), crosses (18-11) and duels won (51-40). The Union led by only one in shots (16-15) and shots on goal (6-5).
After Philly’s Leon Flach scored in the 59th minute, FCC would force saves by keeper Andre Blake on shots by Lucho Acosta (71st minute) and Brandon Vazquez (83rd). ESPN said that the Union had “squeaked by” FCC, and mlssoccer.com cited “heroics” by Blake as necessary for the win.
Bottom line, the result didn’t bust FCC’s growing standing as a dangerous new kid on the MLS upper-tier block. And in 2023, the Orange and Blue have blown by the Union in the high-speed lane, doubling Philly’s early-season point total (14-7).
But to cement its newfound status in the matchup, FCC must now go out and actually win the game at 7:30 Saturday night at TQL. This requirement is hardly lost on Albright.
“It’s a short sample size,” he says of FCC’s rise to favorite status. “We like where we are, it’s accurate in the moment that our results are better than theirs, but that said, we’re still building something, whereas they’ve actually built a legacy with what they’ve done over the longer term. We are still looking to put ourselves in a position to be as consistently successful as they’ve been. We hope we can.”
The Union are much more concerned with their present than their past, however. Their less-than-satisfactory season rolled on Saturday with a scoreless home draw against winless Sporting Kansas City. The bright spot for the Pennsylvanians was a clean sheet for Blake, the three-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year who had missed the previous two league matches with a groin injury. The Union gave up five goals in a pair of losses with Blake out.
"He’s the best goalkeeper that our league has, and we're stronger with him in the group,” said head coach Curtin.
But Curtin emerged hardly sanguine about the overall state of his club.
“I think we have a situation where we have a little bit of a lack of confidence in ourselves,” he said, “and I think it’s contagious. We aren’t sharp, and I think that is clear for everyone to see. I want us to be brave, I want us to take risks, to be relentless. I don’t care about mistakes; they are a part of this game. But right now, our reactions after mistakes are almost like … we make another mistake, and it gets compounded.”
Philly is also dealing with the complication of Concacaf Champions League play. The Union defeated Liga MX side Atlas on Tuesday night at home, 1-0, but travel to face Atlas next Tuesday in the second leg of the fixture.
But it’s not as if FCC will be spending all week in self-congratulation. Following Saturday’s 1-nil home win over Inter Miami, Noonan seemed almost stunned that his club had prevailed.
"Good to get three points. Aside from that, it was really hard to pull some positives, starting with myself," Noonan said. "The week of preparation was strange. We had too many off days with intensity, with quality. Guys traveling back from international duty (and) losing Obi late in the week.”
Noonan referred to Obinna Nwobodo, one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS. He was held out due to a hamstring injury, and his status for the Philadelphia match is undetermined.
“There were things that just threw the rhythm off, and I don't think the guys were well prepared,” Noonan went on about the Miami game. “That starts with me, so I give them credit for, on a very poor night, grinding out three points."
Noonan had no inclination to celebrate FCC’s rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.
“We’ll celebrate it at the end of the year if we’re here in this position,” he said.
It was, arguably, the least satisfied an FCC head coach has ever sounded about a victory. But that can be seen as a new sign of strength for a rising franchise.
Not unlike the new strength of finally being the favorite against Philadelphia.