The line between relevance and irrelevance in MLS is razor sharp, and FC Cincinnati's teetering on the edge of that line.
The club's latest setback came in the cruelest fashion possible – the final match of this year's "Hell is Real" derby against Columbus Crew ultimately saw FC Cincinnati gift the match to Columbus in a 3-2 loss.
Cincinnati led with less than 10 minutes to play but forked over two close-range goals off of spilled rebounds.
Miguel Berry, the Crew's newest FC Cincinnati killer, bagged a brace to give him three goals against Cincinnati this season, and to deliver the late win at Lower.com Field on Saturday.
That left FCC winless in 11 matches, mathematically alive in the playoff race with 14 matches to play but with scarce expectations for a turnaround.
The standings don't lie, and second-from-bottom FC Cincinnati is setting itself up for a tumultuous grind to avoid a third consecutive last-place MLS finish despite all the claims of progress by the club.
Here's how we see things at Cincinnati.com after the latest "Hell is Real" derby:
Analysis of the loss to Columbus
The frustration in this loss was that FC Cincinnati had a good plan, executed it and, with a touch of luck, was in line to deliver the three points – until they gave it all away.
Consequently, a match that could have pivoted Cincinnati's season in the right direction at the right time was nothing more than the club's 46th loss at the MLS level.
FCC weathered a nervy opening spell by Columbus, which saw the Crew knock the ball of the post and the crossbar in quick succession early on.
When the Crew did finally break through late in the first half via an unstoppable free-kick goal by Lucas Zelarayan, FC Cincinnati responded in kind with a thunderous hit from distance by Ronald Matarrita.
Second half, FCC hit the Crew on the counterattack as Columbus was growing into the match. Cincinnati took the lead on a clinical movement that culminated with a surgically-precise Isaac Atanga goal in the 75th minute.
Then the unthinkable: FCC goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer coughed up the two rebounds late. The lead was gone by the 81st minute. Two minutes after that, Columbus was leading.
To give all three points away over the final 10 minutes, and in a near-win at this stage in the season, is a potentially crushing blow to the 2021 campaign.
What the loss means for FC Cincy's 2021 season
Fourteen matches remain for FC Cincinnati, which dropped to 3-9-8 with the loss. There are 42 points still on offer. So, the math is in the club's favor in terms of progressing up the standings.
After all the close calls and near-misses in 2021, there's some reason to think FCC should eventually put some distance between itself and last place, where FCC finished each of the last two seasons.
Problem is, flirting with the bottom of the table was supposed to be out of the question for this team. And now they're just two points out of last place in MLS with only Toronto FC (3-13-6) below them.
Three matches into the 2021 season, Carl Lindner III sat down with The Enquirer and spelled out his expectations for 2021: "I would like to have a winning record at a minimum and then if the team gels well together, make the playoffs,"Lindner said on April 28. "Those are reasonable goals as we’re continuing to construct a team that we’re proud of long-term. Again, it takes time to do that."
In order for the "winning record" and possible playoff berth to be realized, FC Cincinnati would have to go on a run of form that would be unprecedented in its MLS history.
D.C. United, the East's current No. 7 seed, is on 30 points and a 9-10-3 record. And that's just where they are today. United and the teams around them (Columbus, CF Montreal, and even Inter Miami) will continue raising the bar for playoff qualification higher.
For FC Cincinnati (3-9-8, 17 points) to finish with nine wins – meaning at least six victories from the next 14 – the club would have to snap its current 11-match winless streak and go on quite a run. And relative to the playoffs, you'd also need several clubs in front of FCC to falter badly, too. Some might, but all of them?
Nine wins would also be three more than FC Cincinnati's ever had in a single season since joining MLS. This is the best team FCC's fielded in MLS, but is it nine-wins-good?
That's certainly not the pace they're on.
None of this looks especially promising at the moment, although the club still has its back-loaded home schedule complete with five matches at TQL Stadium in October.
Can reinforcements arrive in time to save the season?
FC Cincinnati's made up to three acquisitions in recent weeks and a fourth appears imminent. They include:
• Florian Valot, who was acquired via trade and looks promising.
• Tyler Blackett, who has arrived to FC Cincinnati and trained on Monday away from the main group at the Mercy Health Training Center due to pandemic protocols.
• Chris Duvall, who was signed after a trial period and offers a natural feel for the right back position.
• Kyle Scott (report here)was also training off to the side Monday, but the club is yet to confirm his signing. Scott is crafty midfielder whose acquisition hasn't been confirmed by FC Cincinnati officials
FC Cincinnati head coach Jaap Stam wanted Blackett in 2020. Now, Blackett's arriving midseason in 2021 with less than half the season to go.
Stam wanted Scott in preseason. In the end, he's also arriving late. Maybe the club is looking to 2022 to realize the investment in those players.
Duvall and Valot are in the team and training regularly, and both are serviceable.
Is all of this taken together enough to turn the season around? And keep in mind Ronald Matarrita has officially departed FC Cincinnati once again for Costa Rica national team duty with Concacaf FIFA World Cup qualifiers on the horizon.
There's time left to go on a run but the club is going to have a hard time doing so. Meanwhile, an increasingly frustrated fan base continues to sour on the state of the on-field product.
Inter Miami is one of the clubs in the East that's stabilized and could be on track for respectability in 2021. The latest evidence of Miami's improvement since the start of the season was a scoreless draw with second-place Orlando City SC on Friday.
Over its last six matches, Miami is 3-1-2 with two draws against high-flying Orlando and victories over Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and, most impressively, Nashville SC.
With matches against Cincinnati, Columbus, Toronto, Nashville and Atlanta to come in September, Miami's has a reasonably favorable schedule and can see a path into serious playoff contention.
Miami's designated players are contributing at a high level with Gonzalo Higuaín on a team-leading eight goals.