FC Cincinnati hopeful for another playoff run in 2023. Is it good enough?

FCC kicks off its season at TQL Stadium Saturday night.
FC Cincinnati midfielder Álvaro Barreal (31) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal...
FC Cincinnati midfielder Álvaro Barreal (31) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Vancouver Whitecaps Wednesday, July 13, 2022, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)(Jeff Dean | AP)
Published: Feb. 24, 2023 at 8:59 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (Enquirer) - The next chapter in FC Cincinnati’s history will tell if the club can sustain its newfound success, build on it and bear the weight of expectation.

Make no mistake: Opposing MLS clubs know FC Cincinnati is coming for the MLS Cup in 2023, even if that’s not FCC’s stated goal for this year. Gone are the days of Cincinnati taking the rest of the league by surprise. That went out the window with the club’s fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, having the fourth-most goals in MLS and advancing to the east semifinal where they narrowly lost to the eventual conference champion.

FCC is now widely recognized as one of the heavy hitters in the league, as evidenced by the preseason predictions of the league’s in-house writing staff and personalities. A composite average of those 12 individuals has FC Cincinnati finishing in third place in the east this season, which would equate to at least having home-field advantage in the first round of the new MLS Cup playoff format.

None of those pundits forecast FC Cincinnati to miss the new nine-team playoff field. That’s the kind of rarified air typically reserved for sustainable clubs like Seattle Sounders FC, Philadelphia Union and Los Angeles FC.

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While FC Cincinnati’s been invited to mingle with the elite of MLS, the club is doing so begrudgingly based on their own expectations for 2023.

The hope, as General Manager Chris Albright described it to The Enquirer, is for FC Cincinnati simply to return to the playoffs. That would signal consistency worthy of admiration, which he might feel FCC hasn’t earned yet.

“To go from where we were to the success we had last year was difficult to do,” Albright said. “It took a lot of people’s efforts to get there, most notably the players. I think to show we’ve arrived, so to speak, there’s got to be some consistency, some sustainability, and you do that by getting back to the playoffs.”

So that’s it? No visions of MLS Cup grandeur in 2023 for one of FC Cincinnati’s chief architects?

Albright didn’t outright reject the possibility but he said the club needs marked improvement defensively. Shaving 10 goals off the 56 the club conceded in 2022 would do nicely, Albright indicated. That would likely allow the club to climb a few spots in the standings, which could pay off in the latter rounds of the postseason.

The outlook for 2023

There are plenty of question marks facing FC Cincinnati this season. Among them are:

  • Will the defense improve, and is there sufficient depth at center back?
  • Can the attacking core of the team – Luciano Acosta, Brenner Souza da Silva and Brandon Vazquez – replicate their output from 2022, which was more than 70% of the club’s goals?
  • Will that same attacking core even remain at FC Cincinnati through the full season as transfer interest piles up?

The biggest question mark of all is Brenner. Even after missing a large chunk of preseason for the second year in a row (this time mostly due to a legitimate personal matter), Brenner is said to be physically fit and bought in on his job with FC Cincinnati. That’s encouraging because his preseason absence initially started because of disappointment that his latest push to move abroad didn’t materialize.

But even when Brenner is fit and mentally engaged with the FC Cincinnati “project” as some in the club like to call it, you never know what you’re going to get from him. He’s talented enough to win the Golden Boot this season, sometimes lacking the timely scoring to truly be considered a big-game striker, and ambitious enough in his pursuit of playing in Europe that he could depart FC Cincinnati by August, potentially leaving a big hole in the attack and likely a new face to fill it.

Sergio Santos is the insurance policy to cover for Brenner, now and down the road. And that’s more than sufficient cover based on Santos’ preseason production and the fitness level he’s said to be at. Still, Brenner remains a major wild card for FC Cincinnati. Ultimately, he has the talent to put the team over the top and set things up nicely for when and if he leaves midseason. He will be entertaining. He will be frustrating at times. His days in MLS might even be dwindling but he’ll keep things interesting and score some great goals along the way.

Beyond Brenner, FC Cincinnati is set at goalkeeper. They have two starting-caliber players at the position in Roman Celentano and Alec Kann. Be it injury or inconsistency, one is basically as good as the other right now. The midfield, too, is in good working order, with the promising Under-22 Initiative player Marco Angulo in a strong position to take a starting spot for himself by season’s end as a box-to-box midfielder.

Watch for 15-year-old Stiven Jimenez to achieve meaningful minutes in the midfield this year. He’s impressed during each step in his time at FC Cincinnati and that continued in the preseason as he scored twice and shined in an otherwise drab preseason game for FCC against Philadelphia Union Feb. 10, albeit later in the match when the field was full of second-line players.

Attacking-wise for Cincinnati, Vazquez will get his goals regardless of whether he’s playing alongside Brenner or Santos. He’s a proven commodity now and already scored for both his club (in preseason) and the USMNT (in a friendly) this winter. Acosta will steer the attack at an all-star level again, too.

Center back Yerson Mosquera is tall and agile with speed. Unfortunately, his loan deal from Wolverhampton Wanderers FC is somewhat restrictive as it stipulates FC Cincinnati can’t outright purchase his contract from the club, but Mosquera is still an intriguing player that should solidify the back line. He’s shown glimpses of why “Wolves” brought him on in the first place.

The defense has better depth pieces than it did last year but still might need an additional center back along the way. In any case, the back line is very capable of reaching Albright’s stated aim of conceding 10 fewer goals than last season. Colombian FIFA World Cup veteran Santiago Arias could be the steal of the year in MLS after he signed with Cincinnati following a lengthy trial period. It’s easy to see how he ended up at two World Cups in addition to playing big roles at PSV Eindhoven and at several clubs in Spain’s La Liga.

When all is said and done, FC Cincinnati should finish fourth in the Eastern Conference in 2023.

More games will be required for FCC to go as far in the playoffs as it did last year. The first round is now a best-of-three series but they’re still good enough to get at least that far, especially if they are the higher-seeded team in the first round. If the seedings and the east bracket allow it, watch out for a playoff rematch with the Philadelphia Union in this season’s Eastern Conference final. There’s a great rivalry brewing between these clubs, by the way (and the two-game regular season series should be a fantastic one). But watch out for Toronto FC in the east as a dark horse contender. Nashville SC’s move back to the conference also makes the path through the east more treacherous.

As for the midseason cup competitions, FC Cincinnati has the depth to go further in the U.S. Open Cup than it did last year. How about a run back to the U.S. Open Cup semifinal for the first time since the club’s famed appearance there in 2017? By virtue of last season’s fifth-place finish in MLS, Cincinnati was rewarded with hosting rights for its group-stage games in the midsummer Leagues Cup, the championship of all MLS and Liga MX (Mexico) top-flight clubs. I like FCC to advance from that group.

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