In the coldest home match in FC Cincinnati history, The Orange and Blue kept their cool, stayed red hot on the ball, and delivered a revenge win over Philadelphia Union 1-0 in a 2022 Eastern Conference Semifinals rematch.
Yerson Mosquera found the match-winner in stoppage time, taking a touch on an Ian Murphy header to the center of the box and firing the shot on net past a diving Philadelphia Union goalkeeper. The goal was the Colombian centerback's first MLS Cup Playoffs finish and his third for FC Cincinnati across all competitions.
"We move on," FC Cincinnati head coach and 2023 MLS Coach of the Year Pat Noonan summarized postgame. "Really pleased with the guys for finding a way to advance. It wasn't always the prettiest but I thought on the night against a very experienced team…with what they put into tonight and being able to win."
The late goal earned FC Cincinnati their first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will take on Columbus Crew on Saturday, December 2nd, at TQL Stadium in an all-Ohio MLS Cup Eastern Conference Finals showdown.
With extra time looming, as four of six minutes of stoppage time had already elapsed, and both clubs sitting at an offensive stalemate, Álvaro Barreal sent a long crossing service into the box that found the head of Murphy. Mosquera found himself in the right place at the right time and placed his shot in the perfect spot as the diving keeper could not stop the ground shot. The goal was initially checked for a possible offside, but it was ultimately ruled that both Murphy and Mosquera were in legal position. Both Barreal and Murphy logged their first-ever MLS Cup Playoff assists on the play.
"I gave him some motivation. Before the game, I talked to him," FC Cincinnati captain Luciano Acosta said of Mosquera. "I told him that if he didn't have a yellow card, he would contribute, maybe in the goals.
"He's having an incredible season and he's a great player, and he definitely deserves this. I told him after the game that maybe, in another life, he was the number nine."
Next Man Up mentality
FC Cincinnati needed everyone to step up and contribute without defensive stalwarts Matt Miazga and Obinna Nwobodo in the lineup and with Santiago Arias starting on the bench. Ray Gaddis, Alvas Powell and Yuya Kubo were tapped to fill in for the absent starters.
Throughout the season, Pat Noonan was forced to get creative with lineup choices for a variety of reasons: injury, international duty, rest and rotation. Familiarity with changes to the starting group and combinations of stars helped give confidence to the group on the pitch.
"This whole year, everybody stepped up and did their job every time they were called upon," forward Brandon Vazquez said. "You see it in training sessions. The intensity, the quality everybody brings, it pushes everyone to be at their best every day. And so I think no matter who's called upon, everyone is ready."
Despite the absence of the MLS Defender of the Year and one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, FC Cincinnati's midfielders frustrated the Union's attack all night. On three occasions in the first half, the pressure of either Gaddis or Kubo forced errors and turnovers. Alvaro Barreal aided in their effort, emphasizing his role as a defender by applying persistent pressure on the outside wing.
By the time the night was over, the rotation players answered the call and earned the club a clean sheet.
"One might not have seen Yuya, and Ray and Alvis enough to understand that those guys were going to be ready…I thought they were outstanding," Noonan said of rotation players' impact on the match. "This was a backline that hadn't played together for quite some time. I think maybe this combination has happened once; we've played a lot of different lineups…because these guys are good pros. They know how to be team players and they know how to take their moments, and those guys filled the holes of some important pieces tonight."
Through the first 20 minutes of play, FC Cincinnati dominated play. With over 70 percent possession and putting on three shots to Philadelphia Union's one, The Orange and Blue spent most of the opening half in the attacking zone.
Philly eventually found their footing, bringing the possession battle back to a more respectable 58-42 ratio and earned 0.6 to FC Cincinnati's 0.5 expected goals thanks to a disastrous miss from in close by Mikael Uhre in the 40th minute, but that was the long danger that plagued FCC through 45 mins.
After a contentious last meeting between these two sides - which yielded over a dozen yellow cards and two reds - referee Ismail Elfath maintained control of the match by utilizing his whistle and cards like a judge's gavel. Issuing cards to Gaddis, Aaron Boupendza, Philadelphia's Damion Lowe, and Julian Carranza. Elfath, who was called to officiate matches at the World Cup last winter, also frequently used one-on-one conversations and demonstrative hand motions to assert his control.
Composure was a key taking point for FC Cincinnati and head coach Pat Noonan, who was missing the aforementioned Miazga due to yellow card accumulation.
"It's important that we understand how and when to have the composure needed to find success and go win the game," Noonan said Wednesday. "You have to find ways to mentally be in the right space to get the decisions right and to help your team."
While FC Cincinnati avoided the dramatics of extra circular comings with the Philadelphia Union, Noonan made it clear that his interpretation of composer involves more than staying out of confrontations with opponents and officials.
"I think decision-making can be better. That's part of the composure that I talk about," Noonan said. "Managing the game and not trying to do too much. I think there were stretches where we tried to do too much.
"How you lose focus at times because of the opposition or a call that doesn't go your way – that stuff still has to improve."
Late game adjustments
With the full-time 90 winding to a close and 30 minutes of extra time awaiting on the other side of six stoppage-time minutes, Noonan went to his bench for the first time to make a substitute in the 88th minute. Boupendza, who made the start and registered three shots on target, was subbed off for Dominique Badji. Badji started both matches against New York Red Bull in Round One.
FC Cincinnati found the winning goal in stoppage time, taking a 1-0 lead with just more than two minutes to play, and thus went into a defensive mode to see out the game. Subbing out Yuya Kubo for Marco Angulo to strengthen the defensive midfield.
"You start to think about with a couple minutes left what it looks like after that final whistle and getting inventory with where guys are physically," Noonan said postgame. "Fatigue certainly set in, but I just thought the group that was out in the field was strong. It was kind of just observing if guys were fading in ways where we felt like they couldn't have the intensity on both sides of the ball that you need, and I thought the majority of the guys were still in a pretty good place."