How FC Cincinnati can clinch an MLS Cup playoff spot this weekend at TQL Stadium

Months of unbeaten soccer and almost a full season of defying expectations has led FC Cincinnati to the brink of clinching its first postseason berth in Major League Soccer. By the end of the weekend, FCC could have its postseason ticket booked, but it will need some help to get there.

FC Cincinnati hosts Chicago Fire FC Saturday at TQL Stadium (7:30 p.m.) to mark the regular-season home finale, and the club is eager to clinch its place among seven Eastern Conference playoffs teams in front of its own supporters.

Doing so will require at least a draw by FC Cincinnati, although the club will be expected to dispatch a nine-win Chicago club that's been eliminated from postseason contention.

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There are a host of clinching scenarios in play this weekend, including some that accompany an FCC draw. A win and any of the following would guarantee playoff soccer for FC Cincinnati:

  • Inter Miami CF loss or tie at Toronto FC (Friday, 7:30 p.m. kickoff) -- OR

  • Columbus Crew loss or tie against the New York Red Bulls (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. kickoff) -- OF

  • Orlando City SC loss or tie against New York City FC (Sunday, 1 p.m. at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey)

If FC Cincinnati can only manage a draw, here's what would also need to happen:

  • Charlotte FC loss or tie + Columbus loss or tie + Orlando loss or tie + Miami loss -- OR

  • Charlotte loss or tie + Columbus loss or tie + Orlando loss + Miami tie

"I'm aware of the scenarios, or some of them," FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said during a Thursday news conference. "I still said to the group, we step on the field and win, teams are still having to chase us, and every week that happens, it's one less week that they can catch us. So, here we are with teams that have three or two (matches) to play. We're in a good spot, but the teams that are chasing us are also going to be taking points off of each other. I think if we can get three points on the weekend, we're in a good position."

Even if the other results don't go FC Cincinnati's way and its playoff berth isn't clinched, it's hard to understate the importance of a victory against the Fire. FC Cincinnati is jockeying for the best-possible seeding − a pursuit that's likely to carry into the final game of the year, Oct. 9 at D.C. United.

A win only furthers that pursuit. FCC is still mathematically alive for third and fourth place in the east, which would give the club homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

About Chicago Fire

Noonan correctly pointed out during his pre-match comments that Chicago being eliminated from postseason contention doesn't mean FCC is altogether out of their league.

The Fire (9-15-8, 35 points) are 11 points back of FC Cincinnati in the east standings. Chicago's up-and-down 2022 season under first-year head coach Ezra Hendrickson wasn't for lack of investment and skill, too.

The addition of Swiss central midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, who was the highest-paid player in MLS when the season started, highlighted the club's offseason push for a return to the postseason.

Shaqiri leads the club with seven goals and 11 assists. Colombian Jhon Duran has six goals this season.

For FC Cincinnati, facing an eliminated team poses a different kind of danger.

While Hendrickson and his staff will use their remaining matches to evaluate the club's personnel, they'd also surely relish a chance to impact the playoff picture. The club won't be hampered in its decision making by the fear of steep repercussions for a loss, too.

"Sometimes it's just the uncertainty of, maybe, rotations or players getting a chance," Noonan said. "Sometimes you get teams that play very free. And I think in terms of Chicago, they have a lot of quality with the ball. And we've seen that already from earlier in the year, a team that moves the ball well, that spaces field well, and like any of the teams that we've seen where, in possession, they have good spacing or good individual players. You need to be organized to be able to get to the ball in the right ways and not get stretched out. So, you know, that will be something that we continue to talk about."

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The game

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Saturday | TQL Stadium, Cincinnati

TV/Radio/Stream: WSTR Star 64 / ESPN1530 / (in-region); ESPN+ (out of region)

Series info: FC Cincinnati leads the all-time series against Chicago Fire FC with three wins from seven matches (3-2-2). prediction: FC Cincinnati 3, Chicago Fire 1.

FC Cincinnati

2022 record: 11-8-13, 46 points; 5th place in Eastern Conference

Goals for: 54

Goals against: 49

Coach: Pat Noonan –- first season at FC Cincinnati

Projected starting lineup:

Roman Celentano, goalkeeper

Alvas Powell, right back

Geoff Cameron, center back

Matt Miazga, center back

Nick Hagglund, center back

Alvaro Barreal, left back

Obinna Nwobodo, midfielder

Junior Moreno, midfielder

Luciano Acosta, midfielder

Brandon Vazquez, forward

Brenner Souza da Silva, forward

Chicago Fire FC

2022 record: 9-15-8, 34 points, 12th in Eastern Conference (eliminated)

Goals for: 35

Goals against: 45

Head coach: Ezra Hendrickson - first season as Fire head coach

Projecting starting XI:

Spencer Richey, goalkeeper

Boris Sekulić, right back

Kendall Burks, center back

Rafael Czichos, center back

Miguel Navarro, left back

Federico Navarro, midfielder

Mauricio Pineda, midfielder

Brian Gutiérrez, winger/midfielder

Xherdan Shaqiri, attacking midfielder

Chris Mueller, winger/midfielder

Jhon Duran, striker

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: How FC Cincinnati can clinch MLS Cup playoff spot vs Chicago Fire