Just two short years ago, Cincinnati’s sports scene was in a bad place.
The 2021 Cincinnati Reds finished 83-79, missing the playoffs for the seventh season out of eight and prompting a fire sale of the team’s best players. The Cincinnati Bengals were still a question mark at the time, with QB Joe Burrow slowly getting back to form after tearing his ACL in 2020. FC Cincinnati appeared to be moving in the wrong direction, wrapping up a 27th-place finish in MLS after winning just four games in 34 matches.
Those struggles seem like a lifetime ago for Cincinnati sports fans.
The recent arrival of phenom Elly De La Cruz — and others at Great American Ball Park — has jumpstarted what many thought would be another years-long “rebuild.” Burrow has the Bengals positioned as one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. And FC Cincinnati sits comfortably atop the MLS table having racked up the most points in league history over a team’s first 15 games.
It’s almost too much to fathom for a fanbase that has felt more than its fair share of disappointment over the years. We still can’t talk about the Reds blowing a 2 games to zero lead over the San Francisco Giants in 2012 or Kenyon Martin’s ankle injury in 2000. And we don’t want to talk about Trevor Bauer, Yasiel Puig, Vontaze Burfict or Jeremy Hill. It’s just too much.
Still, sometimes good things happen to good people. Turns out, there’s a reason why De La Cruz’s rookie of the year odds at Ohio online sportsbooks plummeted from +1600 to +600 within days of his arrival in Cincinnati.
And, somehow, some way, there’s more good news than that.
Elly De La Cruz has given the Cincinnati Reds hope
Small-market baseball economics aside, De La Cruz has given Cincinnati Reds fans a chance to dream about what it would be like to call a legitimate superstar one of their own. There hasn’t been this much hype for a single player joining the Reds since the team traded for Ken Griffey Jr. in 2000. Still, Jr. was 30 years old at the time, having played 11 seasons in Seattle.
EDLC wasted no time demonstrating why the hype had grown to nearly unbelievable heights during his two months at Triple-A Louisville this season. After working a walk in his first at-bat in the big leagues — batting cleanup, mind you — the lanky, 6-foot-5 infielder smashed a 112 mile-per-hour double to right-center field, his first career hit and the hardest hit ball by a Red this season (at the time).
One day later, De La Cruz nearly sent a Noah Syndergaard offering out of the stadium, crushing a majestic 114.8 mph home run to right field that landed in the last row of seats at GABP.
ELLY DE LA CRUZ CRUSHED
114.8 mph pic.twitter.com/QtnEQF3Yip
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) June 7, 2023
De La Cruz has already legged-out a triple in the notoriously small confines of GABP and forced multiple defensive miscues with his speed.
That’s because he is officially the fastest player in baseball.
Eventually, Reds fans will also see EDLC unleash the fastest throw from shortstop in the majors. He already fired one 98 mph to first in Louisville, a clean 1 mph faster than anyone in MLB this season.
EDLC’s combination of tools — power, speed, athleticism — are almost too good to be true. The 21-year-old’s first week in Cincinnati has only backed up an astronomical amount of hype, even for one of MLB’s top prospects.
For Reds fans, this is all on top of the fact that fellow rookie Matt McLain has been a smashing success himself through his first month in the majors. The former first-round pick is hitting .322 with 13 extra base hits and an .867 OPS having settled into the two-hole in the lineup.
Yet another rookie, starting pitcher Andrew Abbott, hasn’t given up a run through his first two starts, both wins.
The Reds are now 6-2 since calling up Elly and just two games under .500. At 33-35, the team is only 2.5 games out of first place in a weak NL Central, prompting a discussion that seemed impossible back in April: Will the Reds add players (and salary) this summer with hope of a playoff push?
Even the question is a welcome step for Reds fans, and it wouldn’t be on the table without EDLC.
Joe Burrow is so good it’s almost boring
In some ways, Joe Burrow’s ascent was as unexpected as EDLC’s. Go back to 2017 and Burrow was a fledgling backup QB for Ohio State.
Burrow’s first season at LSU was decidedly average — zero signs that he would break out the following year at 22 years old in his fifth collegiate season. Then he put up 60 touchdowns en route to the national championship and a Heisman Trophy.
Since then: three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals resulting in a Super Bowl LVI and an AFC Championship game appearance. Burrow is widely considered to be the second- or third-best quarterback in the NFL — the most important position in professional sports.
The Bengals currently have the fifth-shortest odds at DraftKings Sportsbook Ohio to win Super Bowl LVIII at +1100. Only the Chiefs (+600), Eagles (+650), Bills (+900) and 49ers (+1000) are more heavily favored.
If an NFL general manager could choose from scratch how to set an NFL franchise up for a decade-plus of success, he would start with Burrow — and his second and third choices would be players like Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. The Bengals have the exact recipe for success in today’s pass-happy NFL.
Even the Bungles of the 1990s couldn’t mess this up.
FC Cincinnati came out of nowhere to dominate MLS
After finishing in last place in its first three seasons — and witnessing some very Cincinnati-esque mismanagement — the blue and orange came out on fire in 2023.
FC Cincinnati set an MLS record by racking up 36 points through 15 games.
The team currently has an 8-point lead in the Eastern Conference and is the betting favorite at FanDuel OH Sportsbook to win the MLS Cup at +450. Only Nashville FC (+750) is anywhere near FC Cincinnati in the betting market, with St. Louis (+1400) and Seattle (+1600) the next-shortest odds.
FC Cincinnati’s turnaround has been a year-plus in the making. The franchise hired former Philadelphia Union technical director Chris Albright and assistant coach Pat Noonan in 2021, and FCC made the MLS playoffs last year, winning a first-round match.
This season, the team is led by diminutive Argentine midfielder Lucho Acosta and U.S. international Brandon Vázquez. But the roster includes several other players talented enough to represent their own countries.
Both Vázquez and center-back Matt Miazga were recently added to the U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The USMNT face Jamaica on Matchday 1 on June 24.
Midfielder Junior Moreno and center-back Yerson Mosquera are also on international duty with Venezuela and Columbia, respectively.
FC Cincinnati fans — and those still getting to know the squad and MLS — can take a look at TQL Stadium and the surrounding festivities on game day. The team is consistently selling out the 25,000-capacity stadium and providing one of the best game day experiences in MLS.
FC Cincinnati’s hype, however unexpected, is on a distinct path upward, just like Elly De La Cruz and the Reds. Burrow, of course, is already a household name, and the Bengals are largely considered to be one of the better-run organizations in the NFL.
It’s all quite unlikely. But, for Cincinnati sports fans, it’s a chance to leave the past in the past and enjoy some of the most interesting and exciting athletes and teams this city has seen for a long time.