The playoffs are here. The regular season has given FC Cincinnati a well-earned advantage in that they will host all but one game at TQL Stadium, but the stakes are higher and every game from here on out could be win or go home.
The Orange and Blue are familiar with these types of moments. Runs in the U.S. Open Cup, Leagues Cup, and for many, the 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs have provided experience for those high-stakes matches. The club has, in a sense now, been there before.
But never quite like this.
FCC enter the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs as the top seed, Supporters’ Shield winners, and in some pundits eyes the definitive favorite to lift the cup when all is said and done on December 9. Regardless of the punditry though, FCC understand where they stand and know what to expect in the playoffs.
“This is now the first time we'll go into a playoff scenario where you're probably the favorites to win some games,” FCC head coach Pat Noonan said. “Whether people think we should win it all or not, I don't care, but we're in a position where we're playing games at home. And the expectation will be to go and win."
“Everybody wants to play Cincinnati,” FCC defender Alvas Powell said. “You know, everybody comes here to give us a good fight and give us their best shot. So no game is easy.”
Part of being the team at the top of the table all season long is having a very obvious, and easily definable target on your back from other teams. There’s no element of surprise, no catching teams off guard. Everyone plays a little bit harder, takes it all a little more seriously when playing the best.
It’s hard to say whether that changes in any meaningful way in the playoffs. Given the win-or-go home nature of most of the MLS Cup Playoffs format, everyone is trying to play their best soccer right now. But The Orange and Blue are now battle-tested because of that experience. Week in, week out, FCC has stood in the ring and taken the punches from all contenders, giving them a built-in preparation for the pressure of postseason soccer.
“We put the pressure on ourselves, being at the top of the league all year, the whole year,” goalkeeper Roman Celentano said. “You put the pressure on yourself to be the best and I feel like we did well raising our standard throughout the year.
“We've gotten everyone's best because we've forced ourselves to play at a high level. So now seeing other teams again, we know what we're going to expect this time and I feel like we can handle it.”
“I think a majority of the last two months have been games that feel like how a playoff game typically does,” Noonan said after the final day of regular season play last Saturday. “We've seen enough games now in the last two months for our guys to be prepared for playoff games.”
“This time of the season, it just gets harder and harder,” Powell adds. “We just need to stick together and just take it one game at a time.”
The added pressure of being the top seed is also one that is on the mind of FCC leadership across players and coaches.
"It should feel like more pressure,” Noonan said, emphasizing the reality of the situation. “You've won a trophy already and so people, teams will look at that and say, the expectation is to go and do it again.
“That's our expectation in our pursuit of winning another trophy. So it should feel a little different. That's okay.”
The secret sauce, or at least an ingredient in it, for The Orange and Blue’s success has been the unity in the locker room. Togetherness is a phrase you’ll hear often when chatting with FCC players particularly. Staying together, being together, coming together, continuing to be a collective unit with shared ideals is key to the culture.
The trust built by the unity in the locker room allows for on-field performance to flourish. Everyone is on the same page with the goals and expectations for postseason performance.
“The guys are ready. You can see the fight in the team,” Powell said. “Everybody (is) up for the fight. “It's not gonna be easy. We just need to continue to do what we’ve been doing all season and stick together no matter what.”
“We know that in any situation, we can overcome it,” Matt Miazga, who was recently announced as a nominee for MLS Defender of the Year, said. “We kind of look at it the same way we have been all season. Focus on the present moment … but it's about us and it's about how we go out there.”
Noonan still feels there's work to be done on the technical side heading into the playoffs. After earning a result on the final day of regular season play, coming back twice to grab a 2-2 draw with Atlanta United FC, Noonan indicated that despite the point earned, the performance was not what he was hoping for heading into the playoffs. Noonan indicated that given the time of year, he felt like there weren't many positives to glean from the result and that they allowed the game to be too chaotic given their poor decision making in the midfield.
But panic is not the feeling the head coach is feeling, quite the opposite. While there's work to be done, the experiences of the group and the commitment that is put in at training gives Noonan the confidence to find solutions and feel strong about his team heading into their first playoff match.
“The biggest challenge for us is to tidy things up so the game doesn't become so open because in the playoffs, you get punished in a lot of those moments,” Noonan said after Saturday’s draw. “It's up to us to improve in some areas so that we're in more control for longer stretches.
“These guys have stepped up all year. I'm looking forward to the aftermath of this game and in just trying to look at some things that we know can better prepare us to perform better and get a good result, a win, in the first game of that first round. So you know, it's okay, we continue to find ways to progress as a group.”