FC Cincinnati loses five-goal thriller to Chicago Fire, fails to clinch MLS Cup playoffs

FC Cincinnati forward Sergio Santos (11) pushes Chicago Fire defender Mauricio Pineda (22) in...
FC Cincinnati forward Sergio Santos (11) pushes Chicago Fire defender Mauricio Pineda (22) in the second half of the MLS match at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. FC Cincinnati forward Sergio Santos (11) received a red card. Chicago Fire defeated FC Cincinnati 3-2. Albert Cesare// The Enquirer(Cincinnati Enquirer)
Published: Oct. 2, 2022 at 4:17 PM EDT

CINCINNATI (ENQUIRER) - Alvaro Barreal sat deep in his locker, back against the wall and feet up. His face was obscured from view, and that was likely by design.

Fully dressed in street clothes, FC Cincinnati captain Luciano Acosta sat on the edge of his locker room stall, head in hands and, at one moment, rubbing his eyes. Veteran center back Geoff Cameron, too, remained nestled in his stall long after the final whistle, slowly dismantling his assortment of lower-body athletic tape.

Since locker room interviews were reintroduced in Major League Soccer midseason, the trend for FC Cincinnati has been for these and other big players on the team to wash, dress and depart relatively quickly.

On Saturday, they lingered silently in the dressing room following a 3-2 loss to Chicago Fire FC at TQL Stadium that dented FC Cincinnati’s bid for a first-ever MLS Cup playoff berth.

FC Cincinnati loss to Chicago Fire ‘hurts a lot’

Maybe the players couldn’t bring themselves to move after the self-described disappointment of a loss on a night that almost seemed destined to be the biggest in club history from the outset.

But rather than getting the help it needed in other matches around the Eastern Conference on Friday and Saturday, FC Cincinnati received no support elsewhere. It also fell well-short in doing its own job against Chicago.

Consequently, a season-high crowd of 25,316 was sent into the chilly Cincinnati night with playoff hopes hanging in the balance ahead of the season-finale, an Oct. 9 match at D.C. United’s Audi Field.

The club’s 11-match winning streak was also ended, and even that wasn’t enough to get FCC over the playoff line in the end.

“This one hurts a lot. It’s probably the one that hurts the most this year,” FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez said. “I think we played good. We created a lot of chances in the first half and we didn’t put them away, and those were crucial. You forgive, you get punished for it. That’s what happened to us tonight.”

FC Cincinnati trailed, 3-0, in the 75th minute after defensive breakdowns saw Colombian striker Jhon Duran sandwich goals in the 57th and 75th minutes, respectively, around Brian Gutierrez’s 59th-minute score.

FCC hit back through Acosta, who netted his ninth of the year in the 78th minute, and then Vazquez, who scored his team-leading 17th goal in the 89th minute.

Six added minutes following the first 90 of the game offered the potential for a dramatic draw by FCC, but the most consequential moment of added time was a fracas that saw FCC’s Sergio Santos issued a red card that will rule him out of the D.C. United game.

“Certainly, a disappointing result. We shot ourselves in the foot with the chances that we missed in the first half that didn’t allow us to play with momentum or with the lead,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said afterward. “In the second half, 10-15 minute stretch there where our decision making on a couple plays that opened up the space in behind for them to expose us, was the difference.”

The game and the aftermath

Long before Chicago used its able attackers to rip the cover off FC Cincinnati’s storybook regular-season home finale, it was commandeering the match through other means.

Noonan became visibly frustrated early as Chicago slowed the pace of the proceedings with what appeared to be slow restarts. In other words, delay tactics, and the tactic unnerved FCC’s players eventually.

The Fire also got forward effectively often enough to keep FCC on its heels in the first half, and used their physicality to knock Cincinnati off its heels altogether at times.

In one instance that was verbal in nature, FC Cincinnati center back Matt Miazga ran back into position appearing to jaw with Chicago head coach Ezra Hendrickson, whose behavior was then addressed with a conversation from referee Lukasz Szpala.

All of this played into the hands of a Chicago team that had been well-adrift of the playoff picture for weeks, and was officially eliminated from postseason contention coming into the match.

The boiling-over point came in second-half added time when a shoving match crossed a line that resulted in Szpala issuing multiple cards to players on both teams. Santos was assessed the red card.

In post-match remarks minutes after the final whistle, Noonan suggested the contest was “a poorly-managed game that allowed things to play out the way they did.”

In the end, FC Cincinnati labored to keep its cool and will play the biggest match in club history next week without Santos, a key bench hand and goal-scoring threat acquired in the summer transfer window for big moments exactly like the D.C. United game.

The playoff picture

FC Cincinnati (11-9-13, 46 points) finished the night in fifth place, which is where it was at the outset of Saturday’s match. But the margins are now razor thin as a four-point lead over multiple clubs beneath it in the standings was whittled down to just one point.

Orlando City SC (13-12-6, 45 points) could have sent FC Cincinnati down to the sixth position but lost 2-1 to New York City FC in Harrison, New Jersey.

A win alone against Chicago wasn’t going to be enough to clinch FCC’s playoff spot, but it would have helped immensely regardless of what other teams in the Eastern Conference playoff race did.

But not only did FC Cincinnati fail to help itself, it didn’t catch a break in the other relevant matches. Sixth-place Inter Miami CF (13-13-6, 45 points) won on the road at Toronto FC, 1-0, on Friday. That brought Miami to within a point of FCC in the standings.

Then, eighth-place Columbus Crew (10-7-15, 45 points) stormed back for a late 2-1 victory against New York Red Bulls at Lower.com Field. Columbus, too, is within a point of FCC.

Ninth-place Charlotte FC (13-17-2, 41 points) also remains alive in the playoff picture as it maintains two games in-hand.

Implications for FC Cincinnati’s position will be more clear after midweek matches involving all the aforementioned clubs. Charlotte on Wednesday will resume a match against Columbus (7 p.m.) that was suspended mid-game earlier this year due to weather.

Orlando and Miami play on Wednesday, too (8 p.m.).

A victory might not be necessary for Cincinnati against D.C. United but the club is preparing for the eventuality that it can only afford a win.

“Ultimately, it’s about us. It’s in our hands,” FC Cincinnati center back Nick Hagglund said. “We just need to get a win and get over the line. However that gets done, obviously it’s win next week. The one thing that’s good is every time that we’ve had a not-good performance, we’ve had a good response. I always felt that when this team has been backs-up-against-the-wall that we find a way, and so now we have to find a way to not just tie the game, but a way to win the game. It’s coming down to 90 minutes and if you said at the beginning of the year, we’d have taken that.

“There were so many points (dropped) on the year. You can look back to so many games that we should have got more out of but that’s just not where we are. You can’t look back and regret. All we’re about is looking forward and the next game and pick yourself up tomorrow, and go again - one last time, three points.”

FC Cincinnati didn’t get the help it needed from other matches, and certainly didn’t help itself against Chicago Fire FC Saturday night at TQL Stadium.

The Fire, which had already been eliminated from playoff contention, ruined FC Cincinnati’s 2022 regular-season home finale and dented FCC’s playoff push with a 3-2 victory.

Jhon Duran put the Fire in front in the 57th minute in Cincinnati. Then, Brian Gutierrez followed up with a goal of his own two minutes later.

Duran added a third goal in the 75th minute when he delicately lifted the ball over an on-rushing Roman Celentano, who came off his line to try to disrupt the forthcoming attempt.

Luciano Acosta’s ninth goal of 2022 put FC Cincinnati on the scoreboard. Brandon Vazquez’s 17th of the season brought FCC to within a goal in the 89th minute and, with six minutes of time added on, the comeback seemed to be on.

But FC Cincinnati’s late charge arrived too late.

Through 75 minutes, only two of Cincinnati’s 15 shots found the target, as former FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey back-stopped the visitors to a win that altered the MLS Cup playoff picture.

An announced crowd of 25,316 – the largest of the season at TQL Stadium – attended what could have been one of the biggest nights in club history.

No playoff berth was achieved, though, and FC Cincinnati saw its 11-match unbeaten streak snapped. Consequently, FCC finished the night in fifth place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference but could drop to sixth with an Orlando City SC win Sunday against New York City FC.

The task of clinching FC Cincinnati’s first-ever MLS Cup playoff berth will extend into the final match of the 2022 regular season.

FCC’s Oct. 9 match at D.C. United is part of MLS’ “Decision Day” slate of games, which sees the matches in both conferences start simultaneously. Eastern Conference games are scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. while Western Conference games are scheduled to go off at 5 p.m.

Complicating matters for FC Cincinnati was a fracas in second half stoppage time in which Sergio Santos was issued a red card. The suspension that accompanies the red card will likely result in Santos missing the season finale at D.C. United.

This story was written by our media partners at The Cincinnati Enquirer. For the game’s live updates, click this link.