Continuity has been key to early season success for FC Cincinnati defense

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FC Cincinnati’s defense has been the strongest in MLS to start the season. With a league-low three goals conceded, only one coming from open play, three clean sheets, and no more than one goal scored in any particular match, the defensive core has held strong to secure results for The Orange and Blue while the offense has needed time to sort itself out.

The center-back collective of Miles Robinson, Matt Miazga, Ian Murphy, Kipp Keller, and now a returned from injury Nick Hagglund have been the stars to open up the year, but players and coaches alike would remind you at any turn that defending is an 11-man job. While they are the last line of defense (some would say the goalkeeper is, but the point stands), defending is a collective effort. 

Selfless? Maybe. Team-oriented culture on full display? For sure. But regardless, no matter who is to be credited the defense has stood out and given the stats mixed with the famed “eye test,” that's not a revelatory statement. 

What’s perhaps most interesting about the early season success FCC has seen is that it has overcome what some would call the most frantic opening to a season in club history, and has adjusted to more new pieces than typical roster turnover would have year-over-year in the meantime.

Robinson and Keller as newcomers have – seemingly– seamlessly engrained themselves in the defensive instantly. DeAndre Yedlin, Luca Orellano and Pavel Bucha have also contributed as newcomers despite the relatively limited runtime.

“I think the foundation that we built over the course of the year and a half that I've been here… I feel like we've only grown from strength to strength,” Miazga claimed as the reasoning for the strong start defensively in 2024. “This year, we lost some key pieces, but I think we replaced them well.

“I had no doubt that we would stay strong defensively and just be good in general because the core has been kept and we added some really good pieces. So I feel like we're gonna continue growing and hopefully get better from last year which was obviously a high standard.”

Continuity has been the key. While new faces have come in and out of the squad, the core of players has remained over the last three seasons. More importantly, the things being asked of those players, the identity and the expectations, have remained consistent. 

“It's important that any team keeps its core, its foundation,” Miazga added. We obviously have the manager here (and) the guys who played here when we won a trophy last year…so we know the winning feeling, and for us, it’s about making sure that we go out on the pitch and perform and lay it all out there.”

After that busy opening stretch, where FCC performed admirably despite the uneven (sometimes even completely absent) training schedule due to the busy nature of games and recovery taking priority, FC Cincinnati is now in a period where training can be prioritized and further implementation of ideas and concepts can take root.

“With more games under their belt now, there’s more information about some of the things that we're looking at (for them) to improve with the ball defensively,” Pat Noonan said, highlighting how players are getting added value from the regular training sessions. “Dealing with wide channels when wing backs are releasing, and releasing off the line when wingbacks are deeper, there's just different things that these guys are hearing and seeing more consistently that I think better positions them to get things right.

“Miles (Robinson) has been excellent, obviously Ian (Murphy) and Nick (Hagglund) have been here, and with Kipp (Keller), he's been on the right and the left and the conversations are very similar with him. I think all of these guys have stepped in and done a good job in terms of helping us defend the ball when we're certainly struggling in the attack. 

“I still think we can get much better with how we set up the opponent to play through pressure when we're on the ball and have a little bit more composure, but they needed to get the defensive stuff right first and foremost as the last line of pressure and they've been excellent in that regard.”

“With each game, and each game review it’s getting better,” Noonan added. “And that's a good thing six games into the season.”

The cultural and tactical scaffolding built year over year has put their new defenders in a place to succeed upon their arrival, allowing for their talent and efforts to be utilized effectively. But improvement is still expected, and not allowing for complacency is part of the culture that won a trophy last season and has The Orange and Blue top of the table thus far in 2024. 

Roman Celentano on the mend

After playing through pain last Saturday against Charlotte FC, Roman Celentano will be unavailable for this weekend's match with New York Red Bulls due to an ankle injury that has left him unable to train. The goalkeeper went down in the first half after planting awkwardly receiving a pass and required medical attention before continuing on and finishing the match, but has now been listed as 'out' with an ankle injury and is formally unavailable.

Noonan indicated in his press conference that Celentano is in a walking boot to protect the ankle but was unclear about any potential timetable for his return. Noonan did though indicated that while the keeper will be out "long term," the definition of long term is subjective, and he will also be evaluated next week with a "potential" return as early as next week.

"Roman will be out long term. Depends on how you view long term but it'll be a couple of weeks," Noonan said. "Certainly this weekend (he is) unavailable and then we'll kind of see where he's at next week and his availability for next weekend's matchup." 

Noonan did clarify availability for this weekend's selection past Celentano, saying that Alec Kann is back and healthy after rehabbing from a hand injury that left him unable to train through the preseason. Kann recently made a start with FC Cincinnati 2 in an MLS NEXT Pro matchup to get match experience under his belt for 2024, his first competitive match since surgery in December. 

Evan Louro, who has served as the backup for Celentano in his stead, is also available. Louro has yet to make an MLS appearance but has featured regularly for FCC2 since joining the club. The New Jersey native is a former member of the NYRB academy and first team, was a standout at the University of Michigan, and featured heavily for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the USL in 2020 and 2021, where he won the 2021 Golden Gloves for top goalkeeper and set league records with 14 clean sheets and an 891-minute shutout streak. 

Noonan did not indicate who would get the start Saturday in Celentano's absence but did rule out youngster Paul Walters, the youngest of FCC's first-team options, as he is currently out on loan with USL side Hartford Athletic.