FC Cincinnati enter the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs as the top seed and favorites to go all the way to the final by some.
We know The Orange and Blue will host their first-ever MLS home playoff game Sunday night at TQL Stadium with an 8 p.m. kickoff. What we don’t know yet is who exactly FC Cincinnati will be playing in the Round One Best-of-3 series. Thanks to the new playoff format, The Orange and Blue will take on the winner of the Wild Card matchup Wednesday between No. 8 seed New York Red Bulls versus No. 9 Charlotte FC.
FCC is the only Eastern Conference team that has yet to learn their playoff opponent. Both New York and Charlotte provide unique, but separate challenges, with different strategies and historic relationships for The Orange and Blue to consider.
Against each other, the New York-Charlotte results have been as even as can be this season. Both contests ended in draws, with the game at Charlotte on March 25 finishing in a 1-1 draw and the match at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. on June 21 ending 2-2.
Let’s look at both clubs and how they size up to the number one seed, FC Cincinnati, heading into the Wild Card round.
New York Red Bulls
It took a bit of Decision Day magic to get it done, but the New York Red Bulls squeezed their way into the playoff picture. Three minutes into stoppage time, the Red Bulls earned a penalty kick after midfielder Luquinhas was dragged down just inside the Nashville box, sending John Tolkin to the spot to score the match’s only goal.
The Red Bulls clinched their 14th consecutive playoff appearance with the 1-0 victory, putting themselves above the playoff line for the first time all season. In that 14-year playoff run, the Red Bulls have never won an MLS Cup or made an MLS Cup Final.
A New York Red Bulls win Wednesday would set up a rematch of the opening round of the playoffs from 2022, where FC Cincinnati (in their first MLS playoff game) marched into Red Bull Arena as underdogs and emerged with a 2-1 victory thanks to goals from Luciano Acosta and Brandon Vazquez.
One of 10 charter clubs in MLS, New York enter the Wild Card round as one of the hottest clubs in the league, winning their last three matches against FC Cincinnati, Toronto FC and Nashville SC to close out the season while earning points in six of their final seven fixtures.
Against FC Cincinnati this season, the Red Bulls went 1-1-1 in three matches across all competitions. The Orange and Blue defeated RBNY at Red Bull Arena 2-1 on a last-minute goal from Obinna Nwobodo, and in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 in a 1-1 draw decided on a penalty kick shootout (5-3). Red Bulls’ lone win over FCC came in a heavily-rotated match after The Orange and Blue had already secured the Supporters’ Shield, falling 2-1 at TQL Stadium. All-time, FCC is 4-5-4 against the New Jersey-based club.
Troy Lesesne’s club plays a particular style of football that has become all too familiar to FCC in their three matches this season. Recognized for their slow, methodical pace of play, RBNY is known for being able to take the sting out of a game and keep opposing teams off the score sheet. By conceding just 39 goals in 34 games this MLS season, RBNY tied for fifth fewest in the league while being one of five playoff clubs to have a negative goal differential of -3. The Red Bulls also completed the fewest passes in the league by over 100 with 8,794 and the lowest pass percentage at 72.1 percent.
The Crown also needed some Decision Day heroics to clinch their spot in the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, but did so by earning results down the stretch of the final third of the season. Charlotte FC collected points in nine of their last 11 matches of the regular season, including wins in three of their last four matches.
Charlotte FC had to face Inter Miami CF twice to end the season due to a scheduling quirk with Leagues Cup play midseason. In their first meeting at DRV PNK Stadium, Charlotte dropped the lead at the death to settle for a 2-2 draw, but rebounded well to earn a 1-0 victory over the Herons on Decision Day to clinch their spot.
No club has been quite as good at getting a result this season as Charlotte leads all Eastern Conference playoff teams in draws (13). That said, CLTFC have dropped the most points from winning position this season (25) and own the worst goal differential in the 84th minute or later (-7); winning in clutch moments has been hard for the second-year club.
FC Cincinnati won the season series with Charlotte with a come-from-behind draw at Bank of America Stadium and a decisive 3-0 victory at TQL Stadium capped off with a world-class goal from Luciano Acosta. In the match at Charlotte, CLTFC took a 2-0 lead before halftime, but FCC stormed back to earn the 2-2 draw after finishes from Acosta at the spot and an Álvaro Barreal golazo.
Charlotte’s home-field advantage can be significant as the environment in Bank of America Stadium is unique. Unrestricted, as is possible for their lone playoff match of 2023, Charlotte FC’s home stadium can host 74,867 people. Even at the standard restriction, CLTFC had the second highest home attendance in 2023, averaging 36,337 with a capacity of 38,000.
How to watch
The Wild Card matchup between New York Red Bulls and Charlotte FC will kick off at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena. The contest, like all MLS Cup Playoff games, will be available on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.
FC Cincinnati will host the Wild Card winner at TQL Stadium on Sunday with an 8 p.m. kickoff. That match will also be available on MLS Season Pass in addition to being broadcast on FS1 in the United States, and TSN (English) and RDS (French) in Canada. Ticket information for Sunday’s match can be found here.