Following a midweek clash in Toronto that saw the Fire get a point on the road for a second consecutive time via a 0-0 draw, the team heads to Cincinnati. The match will conclude the regular season series against the Garys, having played them to a 3-3 draw at Soldier Field in March in a game that saw the Fire give up a two-goal lead in the last six minutes of regulation.
FC Cincinnati and the Fire are two of five teams that remain undefeated at home in MLS this season, but unlike the Fire, the team from southwestern Ohio has been perfect, with an 8W-0D-0L record in front of home fans.
The match will be a return, of sorts, for Spencer Richey, who played for both the USL and MLS editions of FC Cincinnati in 2018 and 2019.
All time: 3W-3D-3L, 15GF, 13GA
Last Match: March 18, 2023: Fire 3-3 FC Cincinnati at Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Record: 11W-3D-1L (36 pts)
FC Cincinnati are currently atop the both Supporter’s Shield race and Eastern Conference standings by five points. They were handed a lopsided 5-1 defeat at the hands of St. Louis on April 15, and since then have responded by going on a 10-game undefeated streak across all competitions, winning nine and drawing just once since. Cincinnati are on a seven-game winning streak across all competitions (five in league play), most recently beating hosts New York City FC 3-1 on Wednesday.
3W-8D-4L (17 pts)
The Fire played their last two games on the road, earning a point off a draw in each. On Saturday, they conceded three times while ahead en route to a 3-3 draw against New England Revolution; on Wednesday they played Toronto to a 0-0 draw.
FC Cincinnati entered the league as a laughing stock, coming dead last in the standings in their first three seasons in MLS, even though they had one of the highest wage bills. Now they are the ones laughing, as they are comfortably ahead in both the Eastern Conference and Supporter’s Shield standings and look poised to challenge the all-time record for most points set by the 2021 New England Revolution (73 pts, 2.15ppg).
As we near the halfway point of the MLS season, Cincy are currently at a 2.4ppg pace, which if maintained would end them with 81 points – no mean feat for a team that most had projected to be in the middle of the playoff pack.
The Fire, meanwhile, are still trying to scrape together a decent run to get themselves back into the playoff picture. On the glass-is-half-full side, although they remain on the outside looking in of the playoff picture, they’re close to the pack – a win on Saturday would likely keep them just outside of a playoff spot – the team has lost just once in the seven games since Frank Klopas took control of the squad, going 3W-3D-1L across all competitions since.
If you think the glass is half empty, the team’s sole victory in that stretch in league play came over St. Louis, and Klopas hasn’t yet been able to divest the team of its nasty habit of conceding late goals.
Fatigue – both mental and physical – is likely a factor for both teams, as the match will be the Fire’s ninth and Cincinnati’s eighth in 28 days, and both squads are set to play a U.S. Open Cup match on Tuesday.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Out: Brenner, Sergio Santos, Stiven Jiménez
In some ways, it’s the same FC Cincinnati team that the Fire faced back in March: Head Coach Pat Noonan still plays his team out of a 3-4-1-2, where an elite center attacking midfielder – #10 Lucho Acosta – feeds two strikers with athletic wingbacks who push high up the field to join the attack.
In others, the team has evolved significantly – or at least we’ve learned a lot more about them – since March. The first, and possibly most notable change is that one of the two strikers in March, Brenner, is gone. The DP – called a bust prematurely before scoring 18 goals and 6 assists in 29 games last year – had a pending transfer to Italy, but has left the squad to seek treatment for an ankle injury out of the country, and Noonan has spoken of him in the past tense.
The team made it to the playoffs last year largely by being comfortable letting teams come to them and beating the opposition with quick counters. They’ll still do that, but they’ve evolved to be more comfortable in possession, which reflects both the skill that is in this squad as well as the fact that teams began to figure out
U-22 Initiative player #31 Álvaro Barreal, now in his fourth season with the club, has moved to the wingback from a #10 role, and his speed and energy have helped him excel in his new position and currently leads the team in assists with five. With Brenner out, #19 Brandon Vázquez has become the team’s highest-profile striker, with #14 Dominique Badji playing most often next to him in their dual striker setup.
Though Cincinnati may play roughly the same system as last year, and at a glance have many of the same players that scored the fourth most goals in MLS last year, their style of play has changed: In 2022, 46 of their 64 goals scored came from just three players: Brenner and Vázquez (18 each) and Acosta (10), while this year’s edition has much more balanced scoring – Acosta is the team’s highest scoring player with five goals, and Sergio Santos (now injured) and Vazquez both have four goals a piece.
Out: Jonathan Dean, Chris Mueller, Mauricio Pineda, Carlos Terán
Questionable: Chris Brady
There’s no envying the choices that Klopas has to make for his lineups over the next few games. The schedule is packed enough that the team flew directly to Cincinnati from Toronto, and then the team will fly home and prepare for a must-win U.S. Open Cup match at SeatGeek on Tuesday before playing their only league home game of June against Columbus on Saturday, and injuries have left the team short at several key positions.
So: What kind of lineup and formation will Klopas roll out against Cincinnati? A 3-4-2-1 as we saw against Toronto seems like a decent way to counter Cincinnati’s 3-4-1-2 and has the benefit of only requiring one center back – handy with Mauricio Pineda and Carlos Terán both out of the lineup.
Starting with the safer assumptions: With Brady quite possibly joining Pineda both in the concussion protocol, Richey will likely get his second MLS start of the year. Ahead of him, Czichos and Souquet seem like locks, and Burks grew into the game on Wednesday and is likely the best option the Fire have in a three-man back line.
Gastón Giménez and Federico Navarro both have one fewer game on their legs than many of the team’s other starters, having had a game off due to yellow card accumulation and are essential if the Fire are going to try to hold off Cincinnati’s talented attack.
It’s ahead of them that the questions really start to emerge. On one hand, Xherdan Shaqiri has put on a ton of minutes lately – 690 in the month of May, including going the full 90 in the Fire’s past two matches – on the other hand, if Klopas is going to try to get a result in the league’s most difficult venue, then they can’t afford to not play him.
Although Brian Gutiérrez started the last match on the bench, that is likely due to minute management and he and Shaqiri have shown that they can work well as dual #10s, particularly when they play behind Kei Kamara.
The best bet is that Klopas goes for it – at least for a half, and Gutiérrez, Shaqiri, and Kamara will all start. If not, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the reverse of what we saw on Wednesday, with Koutsias starting alongside Gutiérrez, possibly with an eye to bringing Shaqiri or Jairo Torres later.
Klopas’s best hope is that the Fire get lucky, and are either ahead or playing well at half so that he can make planned subs bringing on (relatively) fresh legs and relieving some of his XI – whoever they are – with the Fire having two more games to play before getting a glorious 11 days before their next match.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Remember March: Fire players should remember that they faced the same squad – with Brenner – and were up 3-1 in the closing minutes of the game. The team is the same, the players are the same – but minus Brenner, plus Koutsias – and so who cares if a bunch of chili dog-infused supporters are singing for the other team? It’s the same guys and you’ve let them steal victory from you once.
- Count to Five: Three of Cincinnati’s best players – Acosta, Barreal and Mosquera – all have four yellow cards and are just one away from a suspension, as is the Fire’s Miguel Ángel Navarro. Miggy needs to be careful, but the Fire can use the fact that all three of Cincinnati’s players know they have to be on their best behavior to their advantage.
- Stats 101: The odds of the best team in the league beating the worst team in the league in MLS are around 60%. Cincinnati have won eight at home, and with those odds the chances of making it to nine are around 1%. Sometimes, stats catch up with you and the Fire might be that stat.
This game is an unstoppable force versus an immovable object; the Fire have won every game they’ve ever played at TQL Stadium, but Cincinnati has won every game at home this season and are currently on track to break the MLS points record. The Fire will keep it tight, but it’s hard to see Cincinnati’s home form faltering.
Prediction: Cincinnati 2-1 Fire
The entire premise of this game depends on what Klopas thinks needs to be done in order to ensure players are rested for Tuesday. That is our shot at silverware. This game is against the #1 team in the East. I think that it’s fine to take the L if it happens. You’re not going out with the intent to suck, but we shouldn’t feel bad when it happens. Weird things happen when the Fire goes to Cincy, but this one might be pretty normal.
Prediction: Cincinnati 2-0 Fire
Hoping this game we get a goal….
Prediction: Cincinnati 1-1 Fire
Orange team good.
Prediction: Cincinnati 3-1 Fire
The result will probably be something like 3-1 Cincinnati but the pendulum swings both ways, and as I just wrote – sometimes, stats catch up with you and the Fire might be that stat.
Prediction: Cincinnati 1-2 Fire
Prediction: Cincinnati 3-2 Fire
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, June 3, 6:30 PM CT
Location: TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, Oh
Forecast: 73’F expected at kick off, with 47% humidity, winds NNE at 10mph, 33% cloud cover, and 0% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: wlasam.com (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)