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Playoff Matchday Preview: FC Cincinnati

It’s system vs stars in the first round of the playoffs in Harrison

MLS: FC Cincinnati at New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls will be missing Cristian Cásseres (left) in midfield.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

My Uber driver the other day drove a Tesla, which was surprising as I feel like if he had the money to afford a Tesla he wouldn’t be financially dependent on whatever profits he earns from driving people around, or it at least wouldn’t be his primary source of income. So does he just do it for fun? If he was in the financial situation where he had to work a working class job as well as driving for Uber, then why would he buy a Tesla? Was he that concerned about how his passengers would perceive him, was he just dedicated to ensuring the comfort of his passengers, or was he simply a subpar spender? I wish I had answers. Life is full of insignificant mysteries that I dramatize for my own amusement.

Tactics Board

Knockout soccer finally reaches Red Bull Arena as New York takes on the 2022’s surprise package, FC Cincinnati. The three-time Wooden Spoon winners have looked like a completely different team, as they culminated their incredible season with a 5-2 win over DC United that clinched a playoff spot on Decision Day. First-year head coach Pat Noonan has revolutionized the team’s style of play completely, going from being characterized by a laughably bad defense that was the subject of many jokes for three years, to playing some of the most attractive attacking soccer in the league, scoring four or more times in four games this year. It’s an incredible story, and one that the Red Bulls will unfortunately hope to end on Saturday.

Pat Noonan has made the 3-4-1-2 his modus operandi, a slightly narrower version of the more familiar 3-4-3 that allows for the lethal strike tandem of USMNT hopeful Brandon Vazquez and Brazilian youngster Brenner. Already attracting European interest, they’ve scored 18 times each in 2022 and complemented each other perfectly; with Vazquez a stereotypical target man that can find pockets of space and finish, and Brenner playing off him and playing slightly more withdrawn. Behind them plays former D.C. United star Luciano Acosta, a 2018 MLS Best XI midfielder who’s thrived as a typical 10, feeding fellow attackers with 12 assists on the year as well as scoring a healthy 10 times himself. The trio are given relative freedom to move as they please while attacking, and the understanding they’ve built allows them to keep defenses constantly shifting as they look to create space for one another, interchanging spots during certain sequences and using the quick, direct style that Noonan has instilled to force defenders into split-second decisions. It’s translated into the 5th most goals scored in the league, and a consistent nervous date for opposing defenders.

Cincinnati’s problems have long been defensive, with the club conceding a staggering 2.18 goals per game in 2021 (league worst), 1.61 goals per game in 2020 (9th worst), and 2.21 goals per game in 2019 (league worst). Considering those are the only three seasons the club has existed in MLS, it’s safe to conclude that there hasn’t been much of a defensive culture in their brief tenure in the league. Under Noonan in 2022, things have… not been much better, with the 1.65 goals conceded per game the 6th worst total in the league, and the team still searching for answers despite the signing of former Red Bull Matt Miazga. Part of the problem has been ineffectual defensive pressure, despite attempting to pressure opponents at a slightly less zealous pace than the Red Bulls do, their only average success rate leaves them exposed defensively more often than not. The two regular season matches against the Red Bulls both featured less enthusiastic pressure than their other games, indicating that Noonan may shy away from his typical tactics in hopes that the Red Bulls implode. This strategy has been used to frustrating effect against the Red Bulls throughout the year, as teams and fans alike have figured out that if the New York press doesn’t work initially, the team is starved for alternative options and fizzle out. Whether or not Noonan feels this is an appropriate strategy for a one-and-done encounter will define the type of problems the Red Bulls have to solve on Saturday, but it’ll be a fascinating watch regardless.

Squad Superlatives

Throwback - Evan Louro

Remember him? No you don’t.

The longtime Red Bull academy goalkeeper was signed at age 21 as the club’s second ever homegrown goalkeeper in 2017 and became a regular for Red Bulls II, making 71 appearances over 3 years at the USL outfit. Unfortunately the path to the first team never materialized, and he departed for fellow USL team Tampa Bay Rowdies without much fanfare in 2021. He had a spectacular year there, named the USL Goalkeeper of the year at the end of the campaign, but the club declined his contract option and a long-term injury left him without a club for most of 2022. FC Cincinnati picked him up in late August until the end of 2022, and while he hasn’t made an appearance for Cincinnati and likely won’t, it’s still nice to see an old friend, especially one who technically never appeared for the first team and is more of an acquaintance. Or a distant cousin.

Honorable Mentions: Matt Miazga, Geoff Cameron

Least expected Ohioan - Nick Hagglund

Originally I had mixed him up with Jakob Glesnes and thought he was Norwegian, but the Walker Zimmerman lookalike is shockingly not even European, instead born and raised in Cincinnati. And if that weren’t enough of the Buckeye State for him, he stayed local and had a respectable four-year collegiate career at Xavier University in his hometown. Baffling.

Most likely to steal your girl - Ronald Matarrita

Inheriting the throne from previous winner Matt Miazga, the former NYCFC fullback is simply mesmerizing to look at. The very definition of handsome. Also a pretty good player on the pitch, surely due to opponents being distracted from the game by his chiseled face. Your girl should get distracted from your dissatisfying relationship by his face too. It’s time to move on.

Predicted Lineups

New York Red Bulls (3-4-3): Coronel, S. Nealis, Long, Reyes, Tolkin, Edelman, Amaya, D. Nealis, Luquinhas, Manoel, Morgan

FC Cincinnati (3-4-1-2): R. Celentano, Miazga, Cameron, Hagglund, Barreal, Moreno, Nwobodo, Powell, Acosta, Vazquez, Brenner

Players to Watch

Brandon Vazquez

One of the more obvious picks of the year, the former Atlanta United striker has had an incredible breakout season that’s seen him go from underwhelming backup to near-World Cup quality in less than a year. His exploits have seen him courted by two World Cup nations in the United States and Mexico, with the 24 year old tied for the team lead in goals with 18, and adding a healthy 8 assists to his tally as well. Vasquez is an archetypical number 9, a clinical finisher able to find pockets of space with exceptional consistency, as well as hold up the ball with his 6’2 frame and link up with teammates. His success has been a victory for statistics junkies everywhere, as his data sheets have always pointed to a player with an uncanny knack for finding high-quality opportunities, not unlike a certain Erling Halaand. The New York defense was able to keep him quiet in the last game against Cincinnati back in August, but letting a player of his caliber have even a sniff at goal is something that should be avoided at all costs. However Struber decides to mark Vazquez, and by extension his attacking teammates, the defense will have to remain switched on for the entire match if there is to be any hope of advancing to the next round.

Elias Manoel

A Red Bulls striker… scoring? Consistent goals from a striker is the type of thing that can make or break a playoff campaign, as having a reliable scorer is an invaluable resource in the tight, tense games that the knockout format encourages. The Red Bulls have famously struggled to find a reliable scorer for years now, and while Manoel might not be the long-term option, starting a hot streak now won’t hurt his chances.

Final Prediction

Shocking absolutely no one, I’ll go for a Red Bull win to advance to an enticing matchup against the well-rested Union. 2-1 for the hosts with Manoel, Barreal, and Barlow scoring.