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Preview: Hounds match against FC Cincinnati could be the stuff of legend

For a USL team to put the sword to an MLS team in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is a jubilant celebration of underdog might. For a lower league team to go through two teams is an epic accomplishment that any player can point to as a badge of honor for the rest of their career.

But to eliminate three MLS teams in a row as a USL team? That is all-time, unforgettable, history-making  football. Poems should be written. Statues erected. Champagne corks popped. If the Hounds get past FC Cincinnati tonight at 7 PM EST, no joke, Hollywood should commission a feature film about it – like Ted Lasso, but real. I can see it now: Jahmali Waite played by John Boyega. Robbie Mertz played by Timothy Chalamet. Bob Lilley played by Nick Offerman. Intrepid reporter Mark Asher Goodman played by Idris Elba.*

It really is nearly impossible for a USL side to beat three MLS teams in a row. In 1999, the last time a USL team won US Open Cup, the Rochester Raging Rhinos defeated FOUR MLS teams en route to the crown: Chicago Fire, Dallas Burn, Columbus Crew, and finally Colorado Rapids. However, MLS in 1999 was a far cry from what it is today: there were no Designated Players like David Beckham, Chicharito, Thierry Henry, Carlos Vela, Didier Drogba, etc. The vast majority of the league was drawn from the ranks of NCAA collegiate players, with a smattering of Central Americans and European second-tier guys. The talent gap between USL and MLS players wasn’t super far.

The 2022 US Open Cup also featured an amazing run by a lower league team, as Sacramento Republic SC went all the way to the final match before losing to former USL team Orlando City, 3-0. Sacramento defeated three MLS teams in the tournament: beating San Jose 2-0 in the round of 16, LA Galaxy 2-1 in the round of 8, and then grinding out a 0-0 draw over 120 minutes against Sporting Kansas City and then winning 5-4 on penalty kicks to advance.

The odds are against the Hounds tonight. But if Sacramento can do it; if Rochester can do it; then why not Pittsburgh?

Tactics and Personnel

FC Cincinnati spent their first few years in MLS as everybody’s whipping boy. They won the Wooden Spoon, the MLS ‘award’ for last place in the overall table, in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Only San Jose has finished last more often, and they’d been in MLS since the beginning of the league in 1996.

However, Cincy certainly have turned things around as of late. In 2022, they finished 5th in the Eastern Conference with a 12-13-9 (WTL) record, and in 2023 they have ascended to the top of the table with a blistering 12-3-1 record. How?

Well, new coach Pat Noonan is a big reason. Noonan, an MLS original, understands the league and its culture, and apparently knows how to construct a team that can compete every week. They play in a 3-4-1-2 formation with two wingbacks, allowing them speed, flexibility, and width. Bob Lilley has overwhelming favored the same formation this season (or more of a 3-5-2, depending on the week) so this should mean a lot of close, physical play and attempts to challenge for the ball and tackle, rather than a lot of zone-patrolling and pass-intercepting.

The team from 2022 to 2023 is mostly the same: winger Rónald Matarrita and centerback Geoff Cameron are gone. And DP Brazilian striker Brenner has been sold to Serie A side Udinese. He isn’t officially part of the Italian team yet, since the transfer window in Europe doesn’t open until July 2. However, he’s been dealing with an ankle injury, and has been sent back to Brazil to recover.

It wasn’t an infusion of expensive foreign talent that got Cincinnati out of the doldrums, but rather some smart in-league moves for veteran MLS guys that helped stabilize the club. On the wings, Noonan and Cincinnati GM Chris Albright added Ray Gaddis, a retired fullback previously with Philadelphia Union, and Alvas Powell, formerly with Portland Timbers. Conventional wisdom said that the 33 year-old Gaddis and the 28 year-old Powell were past their prime. Albright disagreed, and has been proven right.

At centerback, they roll out another MLS veteran, Nick Hagglund, who’s been with the team since the bad old days in 2019-2021. But alongside him these days is Matt Miazga, the former USMNT CB who was sold at a huge price by his childhood club, NYRB, to Chelsea for $5 million. Miazga was loaned out by Chelsea to one Euro team after another – his resumé looks like the train schedule for an American backpacking across the continent over the summer. Vitesse; Nantes; Reading; Anderlecht; Alavés – that’s Holland, France, England, Holland again, and Spain if you’re scoring at home. Matt’s back, and playing incredibly well again. So well, in fact, that after several years in the wilderness, he merited a USMNT callup once again in April of this year.

Another MLS vet getting a go-around with a new team is Luciano Acosta. Acosta became famous as Wayne Rooney’s right hand man when Rooney was with DC United in 2018 and 2019. He transferred to Liga MX’s Atlas during the pandemic,  and Cincinnati brought him back in 2022. He’s not cheap – earning a DP salary of $2.1 million this year. But he is certainly earning it; Lucho, playing as the attacking midfielder and offensive fulcrum, has 7 goals and 2 assists. He’s been named to MLS Team of the Week three times already this year.

Upfront at striker are two players: an exciting rising star, and another MLS vet that’s always been a useful cog but never an essential piece of a winning team. The former is Brandon Vazquez, who’s play in 2022 was so good folks were making the argument that he should have been the USMNT squad in Qatar.** Vazquez has 4 goals and 1 assist this year, and the 24-year-old has the attention of scouts abroad. He’s been linked with Everton, Leeds, Norwich City, and Borussia Monchengladbach, all for this transfer window. The latter is Dominque Badji. Badji was drafted in 2015 in the fourth round of the MLS Superdraft by Colorado Rapids out of Boston University. Both the round he was selected in and the college he played for indicated that he was far more likely to be working in a law firm than on a soccer pitch after graduation. Against the odds, he made the Rapids senior team, and eventually took his place as starting striker. The team let him move on in 2018, and he’s played as a late game bench option for FC Dallas and Nashville since then. He’s big, and fast, and has good instincts for goal – imagine a cross between Albert Dikwa and Steevan Dos Santos. His holdup play is quite good, and in 11,500 MLS minutes he has 39 goals and 18 assists.***

OK. However. Here’s the thing.

It’s the round of 8, and FC Cincinnati are atop the league. MLS teams are currently in a multi-game-week gauntlet of Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday matches, as the league tries to pack in all their needed regular season games before the ‘Nations League’ mini-tournament/cash-grab between MLS and Liga MX teams kicks off on July 21. That means that Cincy will likely rest some players – perhaps all the folks I just mentioned. In the last US Open Cup round against NYRB on May 23, FC Cincinnati started Luciano Acosta, Alvas Powell, and Nick Hagglund; while Brandon Vazquez, Dominique Badji, Matt Miazga and Ray Gaddis all sat. Expect something similar this week.

It might be worthy to note that this past Saturday in MLS league action, Miazga, Gaddis, and Acosta all played, so perhaps all three will be on the bench this week. Cincinnati has followed the tradition in MLS of letting the second string goalie play in Open Cup. So while I can’t predict tonights lineup, I will predict that Alec Kann, former teammate of Robbie Mertz with Atlanta United 2, will be between the pipes. Kann’s only year as an MLS starter was with Atlanta in 2019, after Brad Guzan went down with an injury. Other than that, he’s your average USL starter / MLS backup journeyman type dude.

Predicted Starting XI for Cincinnati

A. Kann; N. Hagglund, Y. Mosquera, I. Murphy; A. Powell, M. Angulo, O. Nwoboda, M. Pinto; L. Acosta, Y. Kubo

Game Info

Riverhounds vs. FC Cincinnati
Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinals
Date: Tuesday, June 6
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: TQL Stadium, Cincinnati
Odds: Hounds +500 / Draw +300 / Cincinnati -210 (FanDuel)
Streaming: B/R Football YouTube and B/R Football mobile app
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: Pittsburgh Soccer Now, @pghsoccernow and @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #CINvPIT, #HOUNDTAHN and #USOC2023


image c/o FC Cincinnati via twitter

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* Idris Elba is the sexiest man alive, so this is the obvious choice, right? 😉

** After all the BS that went down with Gio Reyna, I’d argue Vazquez definietly SHOULD have gone to Qatar. But hey, hindsight … monday morning quarterbacking … and all that.

*** Badji has a dubious distinction with me as a reporter – I tried to interview him two or three times when he was with the Rapids, and he always gave me the slip. So he’s both a player I respect and like a lot, and one that I am still annoyed by.

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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