The U.S. Open Cup is not held in the same esteem as other league cups around the world. However, there are times when the matches send a message about the state of the game in the U.S., and the make-up match between Miami FC and FC Cincinnati seemed to be just that. There were a number of storylines entering play: one team would be the first non-MLS side in the semifinals since 2011, NASL (Miami) vs. USL (Cincy), both markets angling to join MLS, and so forth.
Narrative aside, this on paper was an intriguing matchup. Both sides had defeated two MLS teams in previous rounds. Miami FC had won the NASL spring season, is owned by MLS nemesis Riccardo Silva, and is managed by World Cup winner Alessandro Nesta. Hosting the match weeks after it was originally scheduled, Miami and their possession style were favoured to advance from this match.
Miami lined up in a 4-4-2, their usual formation, while Cincinnati responded with a 3-5-2. Alan Koch, the Cincinnati manager, purposefully moved defender Justin Hoyt out wide to defend the wing while keeping the midfield tight to disrupt Miami’s passing. To start the match, Miami had the momentum as their early possession allowed them to probe the USL side and find a few chances. However, as the first half went on, the match turned into a stalemate. Miami was unable to control possession in the midfield as its 4-4-2 morphed into a 4-2-4 on the attack. On defence, Cincy was happy to unsettle the NASL team in transition but good play by the Miami defenders and poor chances kept the match scoreless.
While there were no player changes at halftime, Miami did adjust their formation after 45’. When in possession in the second half, Miami showed a 3-4-3 that allowed them to hold possession and create a few chances early in the half. However, midway through the half the dynamic changed. Miami had done well to rotate an extra defender on Djiby Fall when he had the ball in front of goal. It made sense – he had been the only goal scorer in Cincy’s Open Cup run. In the 68th minute, however, Cincinnati found space down the left and forced a second defender out of position. The ball in found Djiby with just enough space to poke the ball into the back of the net.
At that point, Cincinnati’s work became easier. Already playing good defence in their 3-5-2, the visitors pulled back ten men behind the ball and closed up the little space available to Miami. Nesta answered by throwing on the speedy Martinez but in the last twenty minutes he had little space to work.
To paraphrase the match commentator Juan Arango, work in the 90th minute is a reflection of your work in the first five to ten minutes. In this match, Miami and Nesta did not have an answer for Cincinnati’s strong defensive work. They played solid team defence which left little space for the Miami attack, and the home side did not adjust or change formation enough before the decisive goal was scored.