Bitter taste, trust in leadership, and a special group culture highlight team takeaways from year-end exit interviews 

20231125 FCCvsPHI Post-Match DB 022

It was a somber day at Mercy Health Training Center Tuesday as FC Cincinnati players, coaches and staff gathered for the last time in 2023 to hold exit interviews and review the season.

One-by-one, players arrived at the team facility in Milford, Ohio. They met with coaches to receive feedback on their performance, what expectations were met and what they will be for preseason. They gathered with trainers for final evaluations and media members to reflect on the season before departing for whatever awaits them between now and early January.

It’s a short offseason, as preseason training starts in just over a month. For the first time in nearly 12 months, members of The Orange and Blue will go their separate ways after a long grueling season of seeing each other every day for training, meals, travel and more. Some, like Luciano Acosta and Santiago Arias, will be staying in Cincinnati for a little while longer while their children finish the school year before taking off for holidays. Others like Roman Celentano, Bret Halsey and Yuya Kubo had flight arrangements for later that day. 

All will partake in rest and recovery for the next month and chew on their performances in 2023. Despite all the successes they earned, finishing two wins short of winning the ultimate prize has left a bitter taste in the mouths of players. 

“You have to catch lightning in a bottle to win MLS Cup and I thought we were going to do that this year, and we came up a little bit short,” goalkeeper Alec Kann said in his interview. “It's still a little bit fresh, you know? Unfortunately, no one is going to remember who won the Supporter Shield in 2023. The teams that will be remembered are the ones that win the MLS Cup and that's not us this year. So I think that that leaves a bitter taste in everyone's mouth and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.”

That is certainly one approach to seeing the 2023 season, the devastating feeling of defeat still fresh on the mind can put a damper on the year despite all the successes. Others didn’t see it that way, as the day progressed more and more players were able to reflect on the achievements and ecognize how great a year it had really been.

“The reality is, we had an incredible season. We won the league, and we won it pretty comfortably,” Matt Miazga said in his interview. “Obviously you end the season with a loss…I think we won the league end of September. That's a that's an incredible achievement in itself. When you look back at it, ultimately winning the league is the most important title. It's the culmination of a season a 34 game season, where I feel like we've dominated pretty much every single time we stepped on the pitch.” 

Two separate opinions. Two valid ones considering where we still stand in the wake of heartbreak. The tone for the interviews was set early on as somewhere in between those two points, with everyone (including Miazga and Kann) feeling some degree of pride for the work done this season, but with that there is the bittersweet taste that remains.

“For me, unless we had won MLS Cup, I think that we would have felt like we came up short,” Kann added, later admitting to perhaps being too close to the defeat still to see the full picture as clear as he would like.

“It's obviously better now because you end the season with a loss,” Matt Miazga said. “We were in good positions to win. So that's obviously a bitter pill to swallow.”

“It's something we all wanted,” Obinna Nwobodo said. “We got to a stage where we're excited, and we look for more.” 

“The whole focus was on the playoffs and trying to win MLS Cup, and host that, and win that, and we just didn't hit our goal,” Celentano said. 

“It feels like deja vu,” Sergio Santos said in reference to the feeling he had in losing in the playoffs when he was a member of the Philadelphia Union. “The feeling is to strain for next season to do better.”

“I have a lot of thoughts, but I just don't want to dredge them up right now,” Acosta added. “I struggled to sleep, I struggled to wake up … thinking about it, but none of it was gonna change how the game happened. So now it's about moving on.” 

The pain is still fresh on the mind. Some, like Celentano and Acosta, had a harder time seeing past the pain than others and were looking forward to offseason holiday plans to help find perspective moving forward. Some, like Kann, Miazga, and Santos, felt that pain and recognized it as part of the process of “football” and were more ready to see the loss as a lesson than as a scar. 

Time heals all wounds. Or that’s how the saying goes. The reality of the situation may differ; some feel that the open wound may be better for them.

Nick Hagglund, who attended his exit interview moving on crutches, has spoken before on his 2017 Toronto FC side that won the domestic treble (MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, Canadian Championship) because of the pain felt by losing the 2016 MLS Cup Final in a penalty shootout the year before. 

“I can’t make any promises, I can’t make any guarantees, but I put our guys up against anyone,” Hagglund said. “There's a lot of good pieces that we have going on. I think we've got a great coaching staff, a great general manager, a great club, a great front office. We have the infrastructure to (continue to) do well. With the fighting spirit of this team, I think you’ve seen we’re going to show up (and respond).”

“Having that little bit between our teeth going into next season is only going to help us,” Kann said. “To use the experiences that we have of blowing two, two-goal-leads at home in the late stages of important games, hopefully next year we can get in those situations again, where we're really playing for something and able to close the door.”

The outcomes are done. The reactions are all that is left for the players. Acosta, winner of the 2023 Landon Donovan MLS MVP award, said now is the time to think about putting your head on the pillow and resting for next season. 

But in the meantime, the work of retooling for next season has to move quickly. The MLS trade window opens on December 11, waivers on December 12, and free agency on December 13. Decisions have to be made quickly. 

On Wednesday, the club announced end-of-season roster decisions that included exercising the options on Ian Murphy and Quimi Ordoñez while declining the options on Yuya Kubo, Dominique Badji, Ray Gaddis and Santiago Arias. Junior Moreno is also out of contract and the club remains in negotiation with all five players while wishing Harrison Robledo (who had been on loan at Indy Eleven) well as they will not be resigning him. 

The work has just begun for general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan. After exit interviews concluded, it’s clear the faith in leadership has never been stronger and whatever changes that need to be made, or are over the horizon, are in good hands.

“I've always seen the team and the technical crew in management have something, a step, something better or an addition to whatever we have in the past,” Nwobodo said of impending changes to the roster. “I think it has happened since I came here. It happened the first year and it happened last year.

“We all saw the additions and how they were able to help. So I think they always have something to help the team in any way we need.” 

“If we just trust them, what (Albright and Noonan) have got in store for us, if we just put in the work, I feel like we'll be in a good spot to win some stuff next year,” Celentano said. “You just have to continue to build on what we've done.” 

The challenge Albright and Co. may face is not in rating the quality of footballers that they look to make out the roster with, but assessing how they might fit in the locker room and training grounds. 

There was something special about this team. Not only were they talented, they bonded quickly and every man on the roster worked towards a singular goal while enjoying the process along the way. A rare combination according to some in the club.

In no small part that is due to the work Noonan and his staff have done to cultivate a winning culture in his two years with the club. That culture factored into the success on the field that won him the 2023 Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year. But what is most interesting about the honor is that in the thank-you reveal video players made for their coach, they all referred to how Noonan treats them as people first in addition to his technical brilliance. 

With that it’s easy to understand the trust players have in Noonan, and the lack of mourning over potential losses to the roster in a soccer sense.

Many made clear, rosters change every year. If you’re around the game long enough you can become numb to the changes, but those friendships last a long time. Miazga shared his experience in Europe jumping from loan to loan while with Chelsea FC, making stops with six clubs in six years for never longer than a combination of two seasons.

“I would for one year get acquainted and become really good friends with a lot of teammates and friends, and then knowing that the next year I'm leaving, I'm gone,” Miazga said. “Obviously you try to keep in touch with the guys and you can create a lot of lifelong friends, but definitely gonna miss the atmosphere and the camaraderie that we've created in the locker room every day.”

It’s part of the business. No one disputes this. But when your MLS Defensive Player of the Year and former member of Chelsea’s famous loan army is mindful of the changes to the room, it speaks volumes of the particular combination of personalities assembled. 

Things will change. But FC Cincinnati players are ready to use the bitterness of defeat as motivation, trusting leadership and believing in the culture created to push towards success.

2023 was another amazing season for The Orange and Blue. But maybe, in a year's time, it was just one more chapter, a prelude, in the greater story of ultimate success.