FC Cincinnati has overcome many formidable obstacles recently but the altitude of suburban Denver might finally push the club to the brink of defeat for the first time in about six weeks.
FC Cincinnati plays its sixth of seven matches in May on Saturday against the Colorado Rapids at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, which is located in Commerce City, Colorado.
The Rapids' home venue isn't quite a mile above sea level but it's less than 100 feet from that at approximately 5,200 feet. With playing in Major League Soccer's highest-elevation stadium will come with the typical concerns of altitude-related fatigue, which FCC head coach Pat Noonan said is a real consideration for the game.
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"Yeah, I think it's real, but each player experiences it in a different way, because I've talked to players after games just to see how their experience was, and it's mixed reviews," Noonan said Thursday of his past experiences in Commerce City. "Some guys felt great, didn't really feel it. Some guys talked about when they felt it and how they were able to recover or get a second wind if they were. So you know, it's case by case, but what you need to understand is how to navigate those difficult moments as an individual or as a team when there's a physical struggle and then you need to think the game more so than running yourself silly, running yourself out of position."
The challenge of playing in the Denver region isn't a recent development in MLS as the Rapids were one of the league's charter members. But what really makes it a factor for FC Cincinnati is that the altitude is heaped upon a pile of other challenges for this game.
'Banged up' FC Cincinnati
Cincinnati, which sits atop MLS on a 9-1-3 record (30 points), has been run ragged but the five matches it's already played in May along with the injuries and general fatigue it's picked up along the way.
The injuries and fatigue were an ever-present factor in the club's Round of 16 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match on Tuesday against the New York Red Bulls. FC Cincinnati made seven starting-lineup changes in an effort to redistribute workloads and was still dominated by New York in many facets.
FCC managed to progress in the Open Cup by outlasting the Red Bulls in a penalty-kick shootout but it did so at great expense. The teams played to a 1-1 stalemate over 120 minutes, which required several FCC players targeted for rest to end up with a match's worth of work, and more than that in some cases.
The club also received an injury scare for center back Nick Hagglund while Yuya Kubo, FCC's goal-scorer in the game, was actually injured, although the ankle contusion he sustained is considered a day-to-day issue.
FCC ultimately received positive news from a medical scan for Hagglund, who will be available to play against Colorado.
FC Cincinnati also avoided serious injury to Brandon Vazquez after he didn't travel for Tuesday's Open Cup match, and striker Sergio Santos returned to full training Thursday after missing the last three games across all competitions.
"Yeah, a lot going on. All at this point are available," Noonan said of the aforementioned players. "With Sergio, this was his first full day back. And so he's cleared and available, it's good to have him back in the group. Brandon was off to the side, you know, that initial diagnosis was thought to be muscular, but it seems that it's a knock behind the knee, so precautionary not bringing him for the Open Cup game. But he's available for selection, which is good. He cleared all the individual stuff and will join the group tomorrow... But all were or are banged up, but trending in the right direction."
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Unbeaten in eight
In spite of the myriad obstacles FC Cincinnati is attempting to hurdle, the club continues to win.
Since its 5-1 loss April 15 at St. Louis City SC, the club is unbeaten over its last eight matches and climbed to the top of the league-wide MLS standings.
Cincinnati is 11-1-4 across all competitions in 2023. It labored for victories against Columbus Crew and the Red Bulls on Saturday and Tuesday, respectively, but it continue to rack up positive results anyway.
Update on the Colorado Rapids
The Open Cup could be an equalizing factor in Saturday's match between Cincinnati and Colorado as both teams played midweek in the cup, although FCC should be riding high after advancing while the Rapids crashed out of the tournament Wednesday.
Colorado took a home defeat to Real Salt Lake, 1-0, as it was eliminated from its longest Open Cup run since 2017.
“Yeah, initial reaction is disappointment," Rapids midfielder Keegan Rosenberry said afterward. "I felt like this was a game for us to right the ship a little bit, find some momentum in the Cup and kind of get back to winning ways even though we aren't in the league, but it wasn't the case tonight. Got punished for a mistake and couldn't reconcile that by the end of the game. Not a ton for me to say. Like I said, main sentiment is disappointment, especially in the locker room from just about everybody.”
Adding insult to injury for the Rapids was that the loss meant defeats to Salt Lake in two consecutive matches after the clubs played in regular-season action May 20. The Rapids haven't won an MLS match since a 3-1 victory against Los Angeles Galaxy on May 6.
Colorado will also enter this weekend's match with one less day of rest than Cincinnati.
“Really disappointing, obviously, to not be in the competition anymore," Rapids head coach Robin Fraser said after Wednesday's match. "It's something that I've said since day one that we want to take seriously, and we have. Disappointing, also, because we had a lot of control of the game, make one mistake, we don't capitalize on some of the good control we have and we don't score a goal and make a mistake in the back. Disappointing way to go out, but now we just have to get ready for Saturday. As I said to the team, I really, really wanted to go deep into this tournament and obviously win it. But the second the game is over, the tournament is over, and it's time to really think about Saturday and get ready for a very, very good team.”
Kickoff: 9:30 p.m. ET, Saturday | Dick's Sporting Goods Park; Commerce City, Colorado.
Stream/radio: Apple TV/ESPN 1530
All-time series: Colorado leads the all-time series against FC Cincinnati, 2-0-0.
Cincinnati.com prediction: FC Cincinnati 2, Colorado Rapids 0.
Record: 9-1-3; 30 points, first in MLS (11-1-4 overall)
Goals for: 21
Goals against: 14
Coach: Pat Noonan - second year at FC Cincinnati
Projected starting XI:
Roman Celentano, goalkeeper
Alvas Powell, right back
Alvaro Barreal, left back
Yerson Mosquera, center back
Matt Miazga, center back
Ian Murphy, center back
Junior Moreno, midfielder
Malik Pinto, midfielder
Luciano Acosta, midfielder
Sergio Santos, forward
Dominique Badji, forward
Record: 2-6-6; 12 points, 12th in MLS Western Conference
Goals for: 12
Goals against: 21
Coach: Robin Fraser − fifth year as Colorado head coach.
Projected starting XI:
William Yarbrough, goalkeeper
Lalas Abubakar, center back
Andreas Maxsø, center back
Danny Wilson, center back
Connor Ronan, midfielder
Braian Galván, midfielder
Keegan Rosenberry, midfielder
Braian Ojeda, midfielder
Andres Gomez, midfielder/winger
Jonathan Lewis, forward
Kévin Cabral, forward
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Preview: FC Cincinnati's hectic schedule continues vs. Colorado Rapids