Soccer fans in New England have to be pleased with their team’s performance so far this season. They sit on 20 points through the first 9 matches of 2023; the best points total in the league. They’ve made light work of their opponents this season and have earned a 6-1-2 record. That, mind you, includes an embarrassing 4 goal loss against the top team in the Western Conference.
Despite that lopsided result, their star young goalkeeper has anchored their re-tooled defense to a top 10 goals-against record in MLS. They’ve continued to receive elite production from their attacking playmaker, and their development of younger players has been receiving attention from scouts in Europe. They’ve had some shaky performances, including the second half of Saturday’s cross-conference matchup with an opponent that has failed even to earn 1 point-per-game this season. Even so, they’re one of the best teams in the league right now.
Yep, life has been good for FC Cincinnati fans this year.
What’s that? You thought I meant the Revs?
I guess I can see why since all those facts are equally true of New England.
New England and FCC are sitting next to each other atop the Eastern Conference through 9 matches. They’re even on points and record this season, with only the Revs’ 7-2 goal differential advantage separating the teams in the standings.
Some of that success, for New England at least, may be due to the quality of opponents faced so far. The average PPG earned by Revs’ opposition this season is 1.3, which would be good enough for 8th place in either conference. Their toughest tests so far have been on the road against the undefeated LAFC, which ended in a 4-0 loss. Their next biggest challenge was on the road against the Columbus Crew, which finished 1-1. Their clash with Cincinnati this weekend will no doubt be another huge test for a team hoping to lift a trophy in 2o23.
With that in mind, let’s take crack open a Rhinegeist, put some chili on top of our spaghetti, and take a deep dive into the Ohio River to learn more about the Revs’ marquee opponent this weekend. What do they do well, who are their players to watch, and how can New England beat them?
The Revs have faced some stingy defenses so far in 2022, most notably Nashville SC and LAFC. Nashville leads the league in goals against per match with a shockingly low 0.625. Not far behind, at 9th in the league, is FC Cincinnati, who allow just 1.1 goals per match to opposing teams. They may be even better than that since 5 of their 10 goals against came during one no-good, very-bad, tornado-warning-delayed evening against St. Louis SC.
Now, I understand it’s generally frowned upon to throw out outlier data, but without that 5-1 loss in Missouri, they’d average 0.625 GA/90, the same as Nashville. They also lead the league in clean sheets. I’d contend that FCC is closer to 0.625 GA/90 quality than 1.1 GA/90 quality.
Defensive Players to Watch
Nwobodo joined Cincy last year as a designated player and has immediately cemented himself in Pat Noonan’s lineup as a 2-way destroyer in the midfield. He’s relentless and covers a ton of ground. This allows him to break up opposing attacks before they even start.
"He's one of our own" #AllForCincy
Obi Nwobodo 🦁
95th percentile among MLS midfielders in pressures per 90 minutes.
99th percentile for tackles, the 99th for blocks, the 93rd for interceptions and the 96th for aerials won per 90.https://t.co/7ScK502nvQ
— Nathan Hale (@NinoOne) June 28, 2022
His 2.9 interceptions per 90 are good for 8th in MLS. He’s a big reason that FC Cincinnati lead the league in interceptions per match.
If you’ve been paying attention to MLS for a while, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Matt Miazga. He played with the Red Bulls from 2013-2015, eventually earning a move to Chelsea. His excellent play earned him a number of USMNT call-ups.
Matt Miazga's first half passing and composure on the ball against Paraguay was really, really good. Have a look for yourself: pic.twitter.com/fuSND9vj4f
— Joseph Lowery (@joeclowery) April 3, 2018
He spent 6 years with Chelsea but consistently on loan throughout Europe. He wasn’t able to find a permanent home and returned to MLS in 2022.
Since then, he’s helped turn around Cincinnati’s defensive reputation. He has the sixth most clearances per 90 and the third most blocks per 90 in the league. He’s a big part of why Cincinnati leads the league in clean sheets and face only 3.78 shots on target per match.
FC Cincinnati has been able to rely on a stout defense this season which has allowed them to play smart in the attacking third. Between Lucho Acosta, Brandon Vasquez, Alvaro Barreal, and the soon-to-depart Brenner, there is plenty of top-end talent at FCC’s disposal. And they use that talent to cut opposing defenses apart with astonishing regularity. Cincinnati has created the most “big chances” in the league this year, per fotmob. They’ve had a slightly more difficult time converting those high-leverage chances, however. They have created 18 and failed to score on 14 of those.
Furthermore, they are underperforming their 7th-highest-in-MLS expected goals this season by about a goal and a half. That may sound like an alarming stat, but I think regression may be headed Cincy’s way. Teams that create quality opportunities at that rate tends to figure out how to put those chances in the back of the net.
Offensive Players to watch
Most of those “big chances” are coming from Acosta, who has earned a reputation for doing so in Ohio. He may be best known in America for his days with DC United as one half of the dynamic attacking duo Lucharoo (Acosta and then teammate Wayne Rooney).
He hasn’t slowed down, seemingly, since joining the Knifey Lions. Last season’s assist king has started the season hot yet again. He’s tied with Carles Gil on 17 key passes, and that’s while missing some time with a shoulder injury.
He, along with winger Alvaro Barreal, have combined to provide 9 of FCC’s 18 big chances. Those two players have the 6th and 5th best-expected assists in MLS, respectively. We’re not there yet, but I’m calling dibs on the “Lucharreal” trademark.
ENLOQUECIDOS: Lucho Acosta y Álvaro Barreal, desde la MLS a la emoción por el título de la Selección argentina. pic.twitter.com/PoqdPW5oTZ
— SportsCenter (@SC_ESPN) July 11, 2021
Vasquez has taken a bit to get going in 2023, but he’s coming off of a breakout 2022 campaign that saw him score 19 goals. He’s a big physical presence who can score in a number of ways. He makes smart runs and is always looking to put himself in a great positions.
Fox in the box Brandon Vasquez gets his 2nd goal of the year! pic.twitter.com/F5KKBJ3qpW
— Liam Giffin (@FootyMLS) April 23, 2023
Those attributes are what got him noticed by the USMNT this past winter.
He has only scored twice so far this year, but I expect that to change rapidly now that strike partner Brenner is all but gone to Udinese.
Vasquez will most likely pair up with Sergio Santos (who, himself, is having an excellent year). Those two up top running onto passes from Lucho Acosta is a deadly combo.
Never Tell Me The Odds
…Wait, no, sorry, please tell me the odds.
Even with all of the talent Cincinnati has on both ends of the pitch, New England is still the favorite to win at home. In fact, 538 predicts a 47% chance of a New England victory. The odds of an upset are just 29% per their model.
So what can New England do to ensure a victory on Saturday?
Perhaps we can learn from St Louis SC’s example. After all, they’re the only team to have bested Cincinnati all year.
Now the Revs very likely won’t have a tornado warning to get in FCC’s heads. But they may be able to use a different strategy that paid dividends for St Louis, quick breaks, and transition moments.
New England was able to use those (nearly) effectively against Sporting KC last weekend. New England found themselves under pressure against a 10-man SKC in the second half but still managed a few transition attacks. They failed to convert in those chances.
— Seth (@SethMan31) April 23, 2023
On the defensive end of the ball, being better on set pieces is going to be critical. The Revs have conceded just 8 times this season, but 2 of the last 4 came via set piece. They’ll need to be better in that regard on Saturday, in addition to limiting Cincinnati’s open play opportunities.
If the midfield keep track of Lucho Acosta’s and impede his ability to break lines with his passing, that will help. If the attackers, whoever happens available, can finish their chances, that will go a long way. Accomplish that, and the Revs should be able to gain some breathing room atop the conference.
All together #NERevs are without 11 players tonight because of injury, suspension, and personal reasons. They’re able to dress just 18 of a possible 20-man matchday squad.
— Jeff Lemieux (@jeff_lemieux) April 22, 2023