For months, the common refrain for FC Cincinnati and many other Major League Soccer clubs had been the same regarding the 2023 Leagues Cup.
“I mean, I don’t know what to expect. It’s the first time for everybody,” FC Cincinnati center back Matt Miazga said Wednesday following his appearance in the MLS All-Star Game.
How seriously will the combatants take the competition, which in 2023 expanded to include all 29 MLS franchises and 18 top-flight Mexican clubs from Liga MX?
Will it be worth it to burn bodily resources in the Leagues Cup? If you go deep in the tournament with wins, will the rewards be commensurate with the output required to succeed?
Virtually all involved kicked the proverbial can on these big-picture questions, but the time arrived on Friday for clubs to chart a course through the Leagues Cup and solve the mysteries of the new competition for themselves.
The tournament kicked off Friday to remarkable success. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Lionel Messi stamped his arrival to North America with a late, game-winning free-kick goal for Inter Miami CF against Cruz Azul, one of Mexico’s “big four” clubs otherwise known as the “los cuatro grandes.”
More: Everything you need to know about the MLS-Liga MX Leagues Cup
Elsewhere in the competition, Leon of Liga MX and Vancouver Whitecaps went to penalty kicks to decide the winner of the game. Leon eventually prevailed in a marathon shootout, 16-15.
FC Cincinnati will begin to chart its own course Sunday at TQL Stadium against Sporting Kansas City of the MLS Western Conference. The game will mark the clubs’ third-ever meeting and the first since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
FC Cincinnati and Sporting Kansas City are two members of the three-club “Central 3” group from which two clubs will advance to the knockout rounds in the Central bracket. Club Deportivo Guadalajara is the other club playing in the Central 3 round-robin group stage.
How FC Cincinnati’s approaching Leagues Cup
The thing about FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan, along with General Manager Chris Albright, is that they aren’t ones to turn and run from a fight. So, if there’s a trophy in front of them, they’re going to steer FCC in the direction of taking the competition seriously and trying to win it.
But the club also has to carefully balance spending resources in the Leagues Cup against its standing in other competitions. Cincinnati is awaiting its Aug. 23 US Open Cup semifinal against Lionel Messi’s Miami. FCC also has an eight-point cushion in the race for the Supporters Shield with 11 matches left in the MLS regular season. The Open Cup and Shield offer many of the same rewards as the Leagues Cup.
Both MLS and Liga MX have set aside a month’s break from the regular season to allow for the Leagues Cup, but that’s plenty of time to do damage to the trophy pursuits on other fronts.
Speaking Saturday during a news conference at the Mercy Health Training Center in Milford, Noonan indicated FC Cincinnati’s approach to the Leagues Cup would be balanced and take into account all of the club’s aims in 2023.
“We’re just trying to go out and represent this club the same way that we have, and every other approach that we’ve taken with league competition, with (US Open Cup) competition,” Noonan said. “We’re hoping for a strong start against a good KC side . . . If we can win the game, the chance of us playing a third (in the elimination stage) is very good. So, that’s our goal. We’re playing two games at home against two quality opponents and I think we’re a good team, too. We should be able to position ourselves to advance out of the group.”
Kansas City’s 2023 turnaround
Sporting Kansas City has orchestrated a stirring comeback push after going winless in its first 10 regular-season matches (0-7-3). Since then, SKC is 6-4-5 and is just three points behind the ninth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“Very experienced and quality side,” Noonan said of SKC. “Despite maybe a slow start, they’re very well-managed (by Peter Vermes). Maybe one of the best this league’s ever had and one of the most experienced. Peter being able to navigate a challenging time and help turn things around doesn’t surprise me at all.
“If you’re looking at what we think will be their strongest group, you have, I think, a lot of 27-32-year-old players on the field. Experienced players. A very good possession team, so a lot of quality with the ball, and so that will be a challenge for us in how we look to put them under pressure and understanding that we have to get these moments right because they have enough experience and quality to deal with pressure moments.”
Noonan added that he viewed Kansas City’s defense as organized, but one that wouldn’t look to counterattack.
Striker Alan Pulido has put together a fine season with a team-leading 10 goals and three assists. Behind him, Dániel Sallói has five goals and five assists.
SKC’s scoring at a respectable clip. It’s 31 goals are sixth-most in the west, however it’s 36 goals allowed is tied for fifth-worst in the entire league.
Looking ahead in the Leagues Cup
We’ve explained the mechanics of Leagues Cup − how the tournament is formatted and what the teams involved are playing for. Now, here’s a look at what FC Cincinnati could be facing if it advances from Group “Central 3” to the knockout stage of the competition, which it should.
The winner of Central 3 plays the runner-up from the “Central 4” group.
The “Central 3” runner-up plays the winner of “Central 4.”
The “Central 4” group is comprised of Nashville SC, Colorado Rapids and Liga MX’s Deportivo Toluca FC
FC Cincinnati is a combined 3-0-0 against Nashville and Colorado this season. Toluca finished fourth in the Mexican top-flight and went 9-5-2 in the most recent competition it completed, the 2022-23 Clausura, which is the second and final half of the Mexican season.
Toluca is currently in the opening half of the new season and is 1-1-1 through three matches.
And what’s idle Chivas up to?
The third team in Central 3 is Club Deportivo Guadalajara, or “Chivas” for short. That’s another member of Mexico’s los cuatro grandes, or “big four” clubs. They’re leading Liga MX early in the current campaign, and they’ll be watching the Central 3 opener between Cincinnati and Kansas City.
Chivas won’t play until their first group stage match until their Thursday trip to TQL Stadium (8 pm). The club will then travel to face SKC on July 31 at Children’s Mercy Park in the group’s final match.
Chivas is off to a 3-0-0, first-place start in the Liga MX Apertura. In the Clausara completed this spring, Chivas finished as the playoff runner-up to Tigres UANL.
Cincinnati beat Chivas, 3-1, in a Leagues Cup showcase match Sept. 21 at TQL Stadium. The game was an exhibition that served as an appetizer for this year’s expanded Leagues Cup format.
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Sunday | TQL Stadium
Stream/radio: Apple TV/1530-AM
All-time series: Sporting Kansas City leads the all-time series against FC Cincinnati with one win and a draw.
Cincinnati.com prediction: FC Cincinnati 2, Sporting Kansas City 0.
Record: 15-2-6; 51 points, first in MLS Eastern Conference
Goals for: 39
Goals against: 25
Head coach: Pat Noonan – second season as head coach
Projected starting XI:
Alec Kann, goalkeeper
Alvaro Barreal, left back
Yerson Mosquera, center back
Nick Hagglund, center back
Ian Murphy, centre-back
Alvas Powell, right back
Obinna Nwobodo, midfielder
Junior Moreno, midfielder
Luciano Acosta, midfielder
Brandon Vazquez, forward
Aaron Boupendza, forward
Sporting Kansas City
Record: 6-11-8; 26 points, 11th in MLS Western Conference
Goals for: 31
Goals against: 36
Head coach: Peter Vermes
Projected starting XI:
John Pulskamp, goalkeeper
Tim Leibold, left back
Andreu Fontàs, center back
Daniel Rosero, center back
Robert Voloder, right back
Roger Espinoza, midfielder
Felipe Gutiérrez, midfielder
Gadi Kinda, midfielder
Rémi Walter, midfielder
Khiry Shelton, forward
Alan Pulido, forward
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: FC Cincinnati starts new Leagues Cup against Sporting Kansas City