The attitude around training the last few weeks has been more even-tempered, according to some players. After securing the Supporters’ Shield in Toronto on September 30 and thereby finalizing their position in the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, FC Cincinnati were able to use the final weeks of the season to rotate minutes for players, keep everyone fresh, and manage any sort of fitness issues that may have arose after 44 matches in the 2023 calendar across all competitions.
But the relaxed attitude is over. The playoffs are here. Any comfort has been abandoned in the week leading up to the Round One Best-of-3 series. The speed and intensity in training has visually increased in the traditional four-day build-up to matchday, as has the volume as leaders continue to voice their encouragement.
“Playoffs is a monster so we’re going in with the toughest mentality that we’ve had all season,” striker Brandon Vazquez said Friday at Mercy Health Training Center. “I think right now there’s been a switch mentality going into this game. Since clinching the Shield, I think the team has been a little bit more relaxed, honestly, so it’s just the intensity and quality in training sessions (has been up) and everybody knows exactly what to expect. … We’re ready for this.”
“I think everyone is ready. We are ready,” captain and Landon Donovan MLS MVP finalist Luciano Acosta said. “We won the Supporters’ Shield. … we are still doing it with the same mentality that has made our home a Fortress.”
FC Cincinnati has utilized the closing weeks of the regular season to regain freshness, which has come at a cost. While they earned points with a victory at Inter Miami CF and a draw at home with Atlanta United FC, FCC has not won at home since a 3-0 win over Charlotte on September 23, and sacrificed a shot at the MLS points record and the home points record in the process of using rotating lineups.
The sacrifice may be well worth the reward, though. By the end of the postseason, FC Cincinnati may play as many as 50 matches this calendar year, a heavy lift no matter how rotated the lineups have been or how many week-long breaks the international calendar has afforded; even in that sense, many FCC players, nine in total across senior and youth teams, have been called upon by their national teams due to their strong play for The Orange and Blue. While other clubs have been grinding it out for playoff positioning, FCC has been able to take advantage of this stretch to recover in full both physically and mentally from the over 10-month grind.
Being at their best heading into the MLS Cup Playoffs is imperative. While the performances of late have not been necessarily up to snuff, according to head coach Pat Noonan, FCC players have the leadership and experience to be able to ramp up for major games despite the lulls in the schedule of late.
In every major game, FCC have stepped up to provide quality performances no matter the competition, including the U.S. Open Cup, Leagues Cup, and high-stakes matches against top opponents needed to clinch the best regular season record in the league. In games where it mattered most, The Orange and Blue have risen to the challenge with some of their strongest performances.
“I think you can already see it; you can already feel it in meetings and how they are on the field,” Noonan said. “Being a little bit quieter at times because I think guys are paying attention to every word you’re saying and want to make sure that the information is right.
“Everybody understands their roles, but I don’t know how much I have to say in terms of motivation.”
Rain has marred the training sessions in the days leading up to the opening playoff game against the New York Red Bulls. With rain in the forecast for Sunday, the precipitation has served as a sneak peek, if not a little dramatic, of how the weekend could look. But the weather did not hamper training, with the team pushing on despite the downpour.
With the benefit of home-field advantage on their side, getting off to a strong start behind their home supporters is something The Orange and Blue feel is key to success in the Round One Best-of-3 series. FCC is 13-2-2 at home this season in MLS play and 17-2-5 across all competitions at TQL Stadium. Games 1 and 3 of the series will be at home for FCC, if necessary. Still, the club is focusing on “the first 90” per Noonan, but will then analyze the match after the fact for any needed changes for Game 2.
“I think that’s super important for us especially because of the fan base that we have,” Vazquez said. “The crowd and the atmosphere that we have at TQL Stadium is second to none. So it’s super incredible being able to play there every game and having the city behind us. It’s important to us and it definitely matters.”
“We know that we’re a really good team and when we’re playing at home, we’ve got 12 players,” Acosta added, “The fans are behind us, they propel us. And the opponents, when they come here, they know that they have to play with that pressure. So when we’re at home, we’re a very good team.”
Dictating play at home will be another major factor that’s vital to FCC’s success. The Red Bulls play a unique style that can frustrate and flummox teams throughout 90-minute matches. With a defensive style that attempts to eliminate momentum and gameplay, forcing what some have called a “low event” soccer, can be ideal in a playoff format that rewards clubs with penalty kicks to decide the outcome if a draw is there after 90 minutes.
“We’ve practiced knowing their style of play,” Acosta added. “But our goal, our job, is to go out there and play our style of game, and we’re at home so that’s important as well.”
The 5-2 score line in the Eastern Conference Wild Card game that earned the New York Red Bulls their spot in Round One may not necessarily parse with the described style above. But Noonan has indicated that while scoring may be up, he feels the things they have seen the Red Bulls do in the past, both to FCC and other opponents, have remained true.
“I think it’s just their execution in front of goal has improved,” Noonan said. “I think a lot of how they create and the personnel that they’ve had on the field has been pretty consistent, but it’s just a matter of finishing off plays and I think they’ve become much better in that area of the field.
“We saw it in our game in the first half,” Noonan said about the October 4 fixture at TQL Stadium that saw the Red Bulls earn a 2-1 victory, “... and you saw it in the entirety of that Charlotte game. I think that’s the difference, because I don’t think they’ve struggled to create chances throughout the year; it’s just a matter of finishing them off.”