CLEARWATER, FLA – In 2023, Aaron Boupendza made a swift and impactful arrival that greatly contributed to the success of FC Cincinnati. He joined the team during a record-breaking campaign when the club was actively pursuing its first trophy. Despite these high-pressure circumstances, Boupendza quickly became a dynamic goal-scoring threat.
In 17 appearances across all competitions, the Gabonese striker netted six goals and tallied two assists after making his debut on July 15 against Nashville SC, where he made an empathic entrance as a late sub, scoring to secure the 3-1 victory. It was a dramatic and exciting start to his tenure in Orange and Blue and one that was indicative of many more moments to come; Boupendza featured in major moments, including the goal that clinched the 2023 Supporters’ Shield in a 3-2 victory in Toronto, and leveled the game in Round One, Game 2 of the MLS Cup Playoffs at Red Bull Arena.
Success aside, though, it was clear the acclimation process would be exactly that for the striker … a process. The challenges of immigrating to a new country that does not speak your native tongue, meeting a group of players for the first time who are deeply connected and entrenched in a trophy hunt, all while trying to establish yourself personally and intermittently traveling for international duty, makes developing relationships difficult at best and near impossible if things don't work perfectly.
“I think for me, I will be better with the team after preseason than the six months with the coaches and the manager when I came in the middle of the season,” Boupendza said. “When you come in the middle of the season it is so different to come to a new country.
“I think the team, the guys, have helped make my life more comfortable for me and my family. So I think I will be different than the first six months.”
Now, with a full preseason to get further acclimated into the club and get a fresh start to the season, Boupendza is set for a big year with FC Cincinnati, in no small part due to the camaraderie created during training in Clearwater, Florida.
The setup at preseason is designed to build camaraderie. Players spend nearly every moment of every day together and are programmed to develop relationships on and off the pitch. Many rooms at the hotel take minivans together for training, walk to the gym for workouts, attend meetings, eat meals with each other, and then do it all over again the next day. The club also builds specific amenities like a players’ lounge and schedules team functions away from the pitch to continue to develop relationships and tighten the group. Players also organize gatherings to watch international soccer matches.
It's the best chance, but also the last chance; team leadership has to synthesize this chemistry. After everyone leaves preseason and the regular season begins, the ability to keep everyone in the same place and control the calendar in a specific way wanes.
It's important for the new players to be welcomed into the group, but Boupendza specifically is in a different situation than anyone else in the club. He's not new; he helped lift the Supporters’ Shield with The Orange and Blue in 2023 and celebrated with the team as if he had been a club member since day one. He is demonstrably passionate about the team and its success. But it is the first time he's been able to participate in this kind of team building.
“I think off the pitch a lot of the guys, especially last year, we all got along really well,” 2023 defender of the year Matt Miazga said in an exclusive interview with FCCincinnati.com. “I think that's really important for the team. Obviously, this year, we have a lot of new faces as well. So we're going to try to recreate those memories in those moments.
“I think it's important because last preseason we did a few activities that really helped. We go Karting, for example, and you spend the whole day and just mess around with the guys. It's fun, and it's enjoyable, and you get to know some of the guys that are new and you really don't know as well and talk to them more often because on the field sometimes everyone's just focused on their job and playing so you can't really get to know them. So, I think these things are really important to a winning club.”
That kind of development is already well underway. An example instantly comes to mind when FCC played their first preseason friendly against Austin FC last Thursday, where after 45 minutes of play, the first-half lineup like Boupendza, Luciano Acosta, Obinna Nwobodo, Alvas Powell, Yuya Kubo and Miles Robinson subbed off and after doing some sideline work and showering at halftime (preseason friendlies operate uniquely in this sense) the group gathered on the sidelines to watch their teammates play the second half of the match.
Boupendza and his teammates yelled in support of their teammates from the sidelines. They encouraged them when they needed to press on or back off or to keep running hard. But they did it as a group. In a mixed combination of Spanish, English and even some French, the group connected through the universal language of soccer.
Part of that connection to the group is a byproduct of the work done by Nwobodo. He has served as an ambassador for the club at times and been a good friend in terms of his relationship with Boupendza.
When announced at his first press conference in 2023, Boupendza referenced the dominant defensive midfielder as a person who reached out to promote FC Cincinnati and provided a glowing review, making the jump to a new city easier. The two had played against each other in Turkey and communicated over Instagram.
From there, the friendship has grown. So much so the pair are nearly inseparable in team functions, and Nwobodo (who is extremely popular in his own right with teammates) has helped bridge the gap to where Boupendza is now more fully ingrained in team culture.
Sometimes, that just takes time; time has undoubtedly been a factor here. But the universal opinion of leaders at FCC will tell you that the friendships formed off the field, the connections, and the understanding of personality and personal lives make the on-field product better.
"I think him playing is the best version of him right now. In training, in terms of actions in front of goal, he has been good,” head coach Pat Noonan said of Boupendza after the clubs first friendly of preseason. “Today's probably the best we've seen of him with chance creation I think.
“He was doing what we expected him to do in terms of the ability to get in good spots and find opportunities, and if he's creating like he did today, I think we're gonna be in a good place."
The early signs of success are encouraging…especially after just two weeks of preseason.