Busy early season schedule provides extra opportunities for FC Cincinnati to develop chemistry and young players to make their mark


The challenge of the early season is clear and already being felt. FC Cincinnati will play their third game across two competitions in six days when they take on Cavalier FC on Wednesday night. It comes at the beginning of a stretch where The Orange and Blue could play seven matches in 28 days to start the season. 

A trial by fire to open the year, and one that comes while FCC are still figuring itself out. 

On opening day of the MLS season, FC Cincinnati had five newcomers in their starting 11, meaning half of the outfield players were either competing in their first match as a member of The Orange and Blue, making their TQL Stadium debut, or both. So, on top of playing on short rest, everyone is playing with new faces and figuring out the chemistry around the pitch. 

The challenges to that are obvious; entering Wednesday's return leg, FCC have already had five players log all 180 minutes of the season in the six days since competitive play opened. Now FCC coaches have to decide how to handle those minutes for major contributors (including Luciano Acosta, Miles Robinson, Obinna Nwobodo, Ian Murphy and Roman Celentano), knowing that there is a weekend MLS match on the horizon and more midweek play to factor in for the coming weeks. 

On that end, the expectations are clear. 

"We educate the players on the schedule," Pat Noonan said ahead of last Sunday’s Toronto FC matchup over the weekend. "This is what the game schedule looks like, this is what the recovery days look like, this is potentially off days, but be ready. It's pretty simple. Guys need to be ready."

Be ready to play. A simple instruction with complicated points of execution but an easy-to-understand mantra. 

Noonan has spoken repeatedly this offseason, preseason, and now regular season on the need to be ready. Last year with schedule congestion, part of what made FCC so great was their ability to go to and trust multiple guys on the roster. When players that normally came off the bench got their opportunity, they were ready and performed,  leading to positive results for The Orange and Blue. 

This season, Noonan suggests, is no different, but it is coming at a different time of the year, and that must be considered. Making decisions particularly on those four outfielders (and Celentano, though he would tell you the challenges he faces are more mental than physical), is even more challenging.

"We're expecting the same (as last season), but with an understanding that it's coming at a different time of the year with less fitness," Noonan said. "So we need to be even more mindful of recovery and rotations."

There are potential positives of playing so many games early in the season. 

With so many newcomers to the group, playing more matches together provides ample opportunity for chemistry development. Major offseason additions like Robinson, Corey Baird, Pavel Bucha and Luca Orellano have already played significant minutes together, with even more to come Wednesday night, hypothetically. Those in new positions or unfamiliar roles like Yuya Kubo (who is learning the wingback role on the fly) or Kipp Keller (who is learning the FCC back three defensive formation after being in a two-man CB tactic with Austin) already have over 90 minutes of play at their new position. 

"We get a lot of games to evaluate our group, specifically new faces; we saw that on the weekend. So the more games, the more opportunity to see guys in pressure situations, how we handle it and how our group evolves early on and then progresses through the schedule," Noonan said. "So I like the fact that we get to continue to see every three days, four days – as long as we get through this first series – what it looks like for our group playing many games and evaluate how we manage it. 

"But also how we perform during it, to give us some early answers as to where we need to improve and certainly with new faces, how they're integrating themselves."

In the long term, it could be helpful to work out the kinks in competition early in the year so that by the time the dog days of the MLS season arrive, the group's familiarity is developed rather than developing. Expedite the process, so to speak. 

It also provides opportunities down the roster. 

Of the FC Cincinnati reserves to log minutes early in the season, the man with the most minutes off the bench is one of the youngest in the organization. 

Gerardo "Dado" Valenzuela has been one of the first men off the bench in both matches of the 2024 season, logging over 40 minutes of action between Concacaf and MLS play. The 12 minutes he put in against Toronto FC were nearly double what he saw in 2023 in his solo appearance/debut. 

"He's on the field because he's been playing well. We haven't really looked at the age as much as the performances," Noonan said of the youngster. Valenzuela, 19, doesn't turn 20 until September, but has been part of the FCC's first team since May 2023, when he was 18. 

"That's how we evaluate all of our players. If you're good enough, you're good enough, and he's shown to have really progressed and matured from what we saw when he initially joined the first team," Noonan added. "You can tell he's eager to learn. 

"He's got a pretty good player in front of him at the moment to learn and ask questions to (referring to 2023 Landon Donovan MLS MVP and cub captain Luciano Acosta) because that's kind of how we see him within our group – in that attacking midfield position – but he's also shown to be versatile in ways where whether he's played from a deeper position or more advanced position. He's a good player and has a good way of reading the game. He's got a good way of receiving the ball and being able to play under pressure.

"He's there in these early minutes and if he continues to perform and progress in a good way, then I imagine there'll be more minutes ahead." 

Valenzuela understands where he is in the pecking order. But that doesn't mean he plays like it. On the pitch, Dado plays with a clear fearlessness and composure that Noonan highlighted. He can play alongside stars like Acosta, who has moved to the striker position in the minutes when Dado comes on. Still, he can also be the central player, as seen from his leadership in preseason matches. 

"It's an opportunity for a lot of young players, me included, obviously," Valenzuela said of the impending schedule. "The older guys, we trust them, and they trust us. We just have to be a team, and everything will come. 

"There's a lot of games coming up … but I just think if everybody just trusts each other and we play as a team, then we'll be good."

Malik Pinto has also seen a return to action in a significant way as well. After being the third most used reserve in MLS in 2023, making 20 substitutions over 22 appearances and at one point appearing in 19 consecutive league matches, the Durham native saw his playing time wane as the year wore on. Now he's appeared twice in as many games and scored his first career goal in the dying minutes against Cavalier to give FCC a 2-0 lead in the aggregate. 

Bret Halsey continues to look for minutes and has made a start and substitution; Arquimides Ordoñez can also make his mark, given the potential for rotation. The more experienced Keller is similarly new. With only 14 MLS appearances, he is also looking for a chance to prove himself to his new club.

The list goes on. But the other side of the coin must be considered for as much congestion as there is now, FCC will be better for playing in all these matches in the long run because once they subside and it is just the MLS schedule on the calendar, the team will be battle-tested, with chemistry built up and with young, exciting depth that has experience. 

But in the meantime, the expectation doesn't change. 

"If we think for a second that we can step on the field, go about it the wrong way, and still get a result … we're kidding ourselves," Noonan says.