How FC Cincinnati won its 2023 MLS opener against Houston Dynamo FC at TQL Stadium
Even for the imperfections FC Cincinnati revealed, Saturday night was exactly what the club needed to start the 2023 Major League Soccer season.
As an indicator of the lofty expectations for FC Cincinnati in 2023, a sellout, TQL Stadium crowd of 25,513 packed in to see the host title contenders play Houston Dynamo FC.
And as a sign that FC Cincinnati might indeed be up for title contention in its second year under head coach Pat Noonan, Cincinnati delivered a win.
Sergio Santos and Obinna Nwobodo both notched their first respective goals with FC Cincinnati in a 2-1 win against Houston in which the club never trailed on Saturday in the West End.
More:FC Cincinnati 2023 MLS preview: 'Getting back to the playoffs' would signal FCC's arrival
More:Here's how FC Cincinnati plans to make TQL Stadium a 'fortress' in 2023
The victory served as a valuable three points in the standings on a night when neither team offered finely-tuned play given the early stage of the season. It also gave supporters a much-needed home result – something Noonan has often said was too lacking last year.
The club’s ardent supporters will also have more reasons to return to TQL Stadium this summer as FC Cincinnati, a trendy pick to win at least one of several trophies it will compete for this year, made good on promises to solidify TQL Stadium as a "fortress," if only for a night.
"The positive was we won, so credit to the group for figuring out a way to walk off the field with three points because it certainly wasn't our best performance," Noonan said in his post-match opening statement. "We need to give credit to Houston. They were good today... We'll take the win and try to improve moving into next weekend."
The victory marked FC Cincinnati's first-ever win on the opening day of the MLS season, and just its second opening-match victory to start a season in its entire, eight-season history. It was hard-won, too.
Santos got on the end of an Alvaro Barreal pass to deposit the first goal of the season.
Santos started the game in place of Brenner Souza da Silva, the club’s joint-leading scorer a year ago, after Brenner missed the final three weeks of preseason.
"I'm so happy for my first goal and three points at home (in) the first game of the season," said Santos, who ran to celebrate with Brenner on the team's bench after a dance at midfield. "The first game of the season and (my) first on my right foot. I'm good."
Houston hit back in first half added time off a Hector Herrera corner kick. Tate Schmitt beat FCC’s Yerson Mosquera to the ball while it was in flight, and Schmitt headed home for 1-1.
The goal was deserved. Houston out-chanced, out-shot, and out-possessed FC Cincinnati in the game, which was former player and veteran MLS coach Ben Olsen's first contest in charge of Houston.
Nwobodo scored the would-be game winner in the 48th minute, though.
A Barreal centering feed bounced around in the Houston penalty area and popped out to Nwobodo, who was stationed nearer to midfield at the top of the box. His shot took a deflection on the way in, and Houston goalkeeper Steve Clark was sent diving in the wrong direction by the first carom, but it counted all the same.
Roman Celentano, FCC’s promising second-year goalkeeper, had a five-save outing that included some necessary stops in the second half to protect FCC’s lead.
FC Cincinnati's returns to league action next Saturday at Orlando City SC.
"How would this game have gone in 2019? Or in 2020?" That was a common refrain immediately following the match. It practically echoed around the stadium.
The sentiment conveyed a widely-held belief that past FC Cincinnati teams playing below their capabilities would have been punished, and brutally so in some cases. But as the preseason forecasts of pundits indicated, 2023's FCC is unlike its forbearers.
On a night when Noonan could only highlight a handful of strong individual performances, FCC still found a way to win.
"Obviously, it's early in the season and we're just trying to get results at this point," Celentano said. "We want to play well but I think it's encouraging that even though we're not playing well, we're still finding ways to win, so I think when we get to that point where we're playing good football around and packing it in defensively, we'll be a dangerous team at that point."
The best of the night from FCC came from Celentano, as well as right back Santiago Arias, who debuted for Cincinnati in the game.
More:The delicate dance that led to Santiago Arias signing with FC Cincinnati
He wasn't the only debutant for FC Cincinnati. Center back Yerson Mosquera also made his first-ever league start for the club.
Mosquera's evening offered a mixed bag and was ultimately encouraging, Noonan indicated. By contrast, Arias was impressive in every aspect.
"I thought Santi was one of the other players that stood out tonight for the right reasons," Noonan said. "He did a great job of connecting the right passes. He's able to play under pressure in ways where he can still find ways out of it and find passes that can kinda get us going forward... defensively, I thought he was strong too."
*** *** ***
*** *** ***
Welcome to Cincinnati.com's live coverage of FC Cincinnati's 2023 Major League Soccer season-opener at TQL Stadium against Houston Dynamo FC (7:30 p.m.). Refresh this page throughout the match for live updates and analysis, and come back after the game for player quotes, reactions and more analysis. Also follow Enquirer FC Cincinnati beat reporter Pat Brennan on Twitter (@PBrennanENQ) for further updates and insight.