Welcome to the Luciano Acosta show.
What else would you call what's happening right now at FC Cincinnati?
FC Cincinnati Charlotte FC Cincinnati, MVP frontrunner Luciano Acosta throttle Charlotte FC | Replay
Acosta is toying with Major League Soccer with circus goals and assists. He's taking full-page advertisements out in the Enquirer. The ad he and his agent placed in Thursday's newspaper was a heartfelt and grandiose tease to his contract extension announced by FC Cincinnati on Friday.
The 2023 Landon Donovan Most Valuable Player Award is Acosta's to lose, and he won't. He's consistently been the best player on the best team this season, he has the best counting stats in MLS (15 goals and 12 assists) and he's out-dueled all the challengers for the honor, such as Nashville's Hany Mukhtar and Atlanta's Thiago Almada.
Acosta signed autographs for his fans for about 40 minutes after the club's most recent game. The love affair between him and supporters is at an all-time high.
Acosta's already delivered CONCACAF Champions Cup soccer to the Queen City, and he's potentially 90 minutes away from delivering FC Cincinnati's first-ever major trophy. He wasn't a story for FCC last week. He was the story, period.
For his latest trick, Acosta was the primary author of Saturday's 3-0 win against Charlotte FC at TQL Stadium.
Let's dissect what it all means for FC Cincinnati and Acosta in this edition of takeaways:
The best win of 2023 for FC Cincinnati?
Here's what FC Cincinnati was facing ahead of the match against Charlotte on Saturday: The team seemed rudderless since its Leagues Cup excursion ended. FCC's outster from the tournament gave way to a choppy portion of schedule pockmarked by long layoffs from action. The club's play was equally choppy and its 2-2-2 record post-Leagues Cup constituted the roughest patch this season.
Wins felt strangely scarce, goals definitely dropped off significantly (about 1.3 during the last six games versus about 1.7 prior to that). Cincinnati looked like it was fading on its way into the postseason.
Enter Acosta's latest and greatest for FC Cincinnati (we'll work backward through the goals). He scored on a slaloming solo run in the 79th minute, completely undressing the Charlotte back line as he dribbled through three players over 65 yards to put FCC ahead 3-0.
In the 50th minute, Acosta ducked and weaved into space to assist on a goal by Aaron Boupendza (more on that below) and gave Alvaro Barreal the green light, plus some words of encouragement, prior to Barreal connecting on a free-kick strike from about 25 yards late in the first half.
Acosta had his fingerprints all over each of the club's goals.
Then there was the defensive play, which might have been the best FCC's produced all year. Charlotte didn't put a single shot on-target. The shutout was goalkeeper Roman Celentano's joint-league-leading 11th of the year. It was as clean as a "cleansheet" gets.
And again, FCC produced this at a time when no one was really sure which direction the club was pointed with the MLS Cup playoffs looming. After that shaky 2-2-2 stretch, it suddenly feels like FC Cincinnati's rolling even though all that's transpired is the Charlotte win.
But the way they beat Charlotte − that was the key.
"I think for the third game with a quick turnaround that the group was excellent the chance creation, the way we defended the box with a team that does a good job of getting good service from wide areas created a lot of good looks at goal," FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said afterward. "You score three goals and keep a clean sheet at this stage against a team that I thought was in, and I still think is, in good form, despite the result is really impressive. So, very pleased with our group."
Let's talk trophies.
Suffice it to say FC Cincinnati is within touching distance of its first major trophy. But first let's talk brand new trophies FC Cincinnati gets to chase in 2024 before we talk about the ones we know.
FC Cincinnati's win against Charlotte played a part in it clinching 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup soccer. That was slightly overlooked in the moment Saturday night, mostly because the math and how teams qualify can be hard to track. In this case, it wasn't straightforward. FCC and CONCACAF also did not confirm the Champions Cup berth as of late Sunday.
But Cincinnati is in, and it's a big deal. Here's a brief explainer of what it is if you're new to the concept of the Champions Cup (which through this past spring was known as the "Champions League"): This is a knockout tournament for qualifying teams from North and Central America, and the Caribbean. At the end, a champion of champions is crowned. That team progresses to the FIFA Club World Cup, which is truly rarified air in the global club game.
The Champions Cup is this part of the world's version of the UEFA Champions League, which is obsessed over worldwide. In CONCACAF, which is our slice of the FIFA map, the competition does have the brand recognition or the gargantuan clubs playing in it like Real Madrid and Liverpool, but it's big and can ultimately lead to run-ins with the Europeans heavy-hitters.
Champions Cup was also quietly talked about this year by FC Cincinnati as one of it aims for this season. So, let's calls this the first big accomplishment of 2023. Rejoice. And buckle up. The Champions Cup will require FCC to quickly and convincingly firm up any job openings related to players departing for Europe this offseason. It will also likely require an earlier and more rigorous preseason. But those are topics for this coming winter.
How about the Supporters Shield? Now on 62 points, FC Cincinnati (18-4-8) moved closer to the Supporters Shield with just four matches remaining in 2023 and a nine-point lead in the standings.
Both of FC Cincinnati's two remaining challengers for the Shield are about to run out of time.
St. Louis CITY SC won on Saturday to remain nine points back in the Shield race. But St. Louis also has just three matches remaining. That means they have a maximum of nine possible points to earn and they'll be eliminated with their next dropped point or FC Cincinnati next point gained.
Orlando City SC tied Inter Miami CF, 1-1, on Sunday. That meant Orlando fell to 11 points back with four games left on its schedule. They have slightly more margin for error than St. Louis, but teams are basically done.
Here's the bottom line: A win by FC Cincinnati at Toronto FC's BMO Field on Saturday and the Supporters Shield is theirs.
Acosta, Boupendza combined for a goal. Now what?
The partnership between Acosta and Boupendza was hyper-scrutinized and obsessed over for months since Boupendza arrived to Cincinnati. But on Saturday they combined for a goal in the second half against Charlotte. A good goal, too. And they celebrated together, meaning these guys probably get along well enough and there's no need to worry about a single second of on-field or off-field drama in this situation.
So … now what do we do? There’s four matches left to find a partnership on this team to overthink and obsess over – let’s get to work.
But seriously, the criticism of Acosta’s and Boupendza’s partnership was hasty. Their time together in MLS was interrupted by the long Leagues Cup break, a September international break, and a suspension to Acosta for the Philadelphia Union match on Sept. 16. And in Acosta's absence, Boupendza was the dominant force in the match as his goal and assist produced a vital 2-2 draw.
We knew what Acosta was capable of and it's not like Boupendza was a do-nothing player.
Prior to the Philly match, Boupendza had been on the field with Acosta for less than 300 minutes – and "Boup" still had three goals to show for his efforts in MLS play. They were big goals, too, like the tap-in against NYCFC that allowed FC Cincinnati to survive its fragile state following the Open Cup semifinal disappointment.
Acosta is an MVP candidate in 2023 for the second year in a row. Boupendza scored the most goals in the 2020-21 Turkish Super Lig season. They are elite talents who have thrived in diverse circumstances and conditions throughout their respective careers. Of course they were going to figure it out.
Brenner Souza da Silva needed more than a year to truly find himself at FC Cincinnati, and given that time, he became one of the most electric players in MLS. Brandon Vazquez needed multiple years to find a groove in Cincinnati, and now the consensus expectation is he'll be playing in Europe by this winter.
Why didn't we give Boupendza the same time, the same benefit of the doubt when everything wasn't going perfectly with he and Acosta?
Realistic expectations for Boupendza were abandoned. That's never a good thing, and I don't think it was a healthy exercise in this instance - especially as he's put up good numbers (four goals in his first seven league matches in a new league is pretty darn good).
Something about the way GM Chris Albright spoke about Boupendza's acquisition gave the impression the player was going to light MLS on fire upon arrival (again, he kinda is). But maybe we expected something flashier, or no dip in form like we've seen recently even though FCC's played more matches so far in 2023 (40, with at least six more to come) than it's ever played before.
"We, perhaps, pivoted a little bit more on how we were scouting and what we were going to add to the group based on the position that we're in," Albright said during an introductory news conference for "Boup." "We could have added a (young designated player) but we thought someone with a little bit more of a proven record gave our team, our fans, a chance to maybe take a shot at something a little bit sooner than maybe we thought we could."
A "shot at something." Win now, in other words. That's what Albright meant. And they are winning right now, as the Champions Cup berth shows and as the Shield will soon underscore. This is still going to plan. It probably hasn't been very far off track at any point.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Takeaways: Welcome to the Luciano Acosta show, FC Cincinnati fans