FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan has made clear his opinion of how thin the margins of success can be in the MLS Cup Playoffs. All the work you do is to give your players the chance to do amazing things in amazing moments.
With each round of the playoffs, and the further you advance in the quest for the MLS Cup Final, those little edges get smaller but all the more vital. The calculated risks become more volatile, but the rewards are massive.
In a rematch from last season's playoffs that ultimately ended FC Cincinnati's first postseason run in MLS, there will be a clash of clubs who have had all the time in the world to iron out the details and plot for all possible eventualities. With three weeks between matches, thanks to the all-new MLS postseason format intersecting with the FIFA international break, FCC has had longer to prepare for any one opponent than they have all season. At one point this year, in the same span, The Orange and Blue played eight games, making the preparation for this game drawn out and meticulous.
"We know what it takes to beat a team this good," forward Brandon Vazquez said Wednesday. "They have a top quality group so playing them is always a battle. It's always a close game. They have a good coaching staff and it's a great matchup for us."
"In these moments when you get into the pressure games and environments, it can be chaotic, but you still have to play, and you have to figure out how to have composure," Noonan said. "Whether it's decision making with the ball, whether it's getting past mistakes, how you conduct yourself with the officials, you have to find ways to mentally be in the right space to get the decisions right and to help your team.
"It's important that we understand how and when to have the composure to find success and go win the game."
The goal heading into the final week of training before Saturday was to have FCC as close to their peak performance as possible and to use the weeks leading into it to ensure that they were trending towards that place.
Weeks one and two were about getting healthy and focusing on themselves, implementing ideas and strategies that are self-contained and FCC-focused rather than dealing with the unknown. So by the time week three arrived, the team felt their identity was shored up, and they could turn focus to their opponent.
"The reality is we've had so many guys that have needed extra recovery, and with the guys that are away with international duty, it's been hard to do too much tactically until these last couple days," Noonan said. "Which is what you're usually given from one week to the next … it's an opponent we're familiar with so I think we'll certainly have enough time with the bodies that are now joining training to be prepared."
The last part of Noonan's quote is the unspoken factor overshadowing the matchup. This is an opponent they are familiar with, both in terms of matchups and organizational culture. Noonan spent three years as an assistant under Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin; to say there is tactical familiarity going both ways would be an understatement.
Both managers know each other very well, but since taking over the bench at TQL Stadium, Noonan has earned the results over his old boss, going 2-1-2 across all competitions. The only wrinkle is that in the biggest game, last season's Eastern Conference Semifinal, Curtin got the better of Noonan in a 1-0 win.
That said, the response to the weeks off and the preparation that has gone into the playoff match this weekend has been similar. Curtin told PhiladelphiaUnion.Com this week, "It's been a unique week of preparation, obviously. We have really low numbers in training, and we will have one day to really prepare on Friday to get everybody together." While FC Cincinnati feels they've been able to give it a full week, Philadelphia may only have a day. It's an ironic twist, given how much time there was between matches.
The margins have been cut on a knife's edge. Every inch, every advantage is going to pay out massive dividends. But while both teams feel not at full strength with injury updates and physical fitness levels, the mindset it takes to win needs to ignore that and focus on what the task at hand is.
"They might be missing out a little, but we can't fall asleep expecting that it's gonna be an easier matchup on that side,” Vazquez said. “It's going to be just as hard. Everyone's coming out with that hunger, so it's not going to be easier.
"We know what it takes to beat a team this good. We know they're going to bring their 'A' game and so are we. We have a little bit of that revenge feeling. We want to win, we want to knock them out. And doing it at home, there's no place better."
"When we play Cincinnati, whether it's in the regular season or in the playoffs now, the history is there that it's usually a one play game," Curtin said at his pregame press conference. "So the team that does better in both boxes offensively and defensively will be the team that comes out. It could come down to a restart. It's going to be a really tight game."
International trio ready for action
After traveling abroad for international duty, the trio of FC Cincinnati starters who were called for 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifying returned to Cincinnati and are ready for selection.
Yerson Mosquera and Junior Moreno went to South America to play for Colombia and Venezuela, respectively. Mosquera featured in a 1-0 win over Paraguay as a substitute, and Moreno started and played 85 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Peru. After six matchdays, the players have been called for all six; Colombia and Venezuela are squarely in the qualification zone to qualify for the World Cup in 2026.
Both players returned to Cincinnati upon completion of their matches. While Mosquera's return from Colombia was unimpeded, the Venezuelan national teams' return to Caracas was delayed after not being allowed to refuel their aircraft for several hours. Eventually, though, The Vinotinto departed Lima, and Moreno could return to the Queen City.
Aaron Boupendza was dismissed by the Gabonese federation before he could train with the club ahead of their 2-1 victory over Burundi. The striker immediately returned to Cincinnati to resume training and is set to participate Saturday.
"(Boupendza has) come back in a strong way. He's happy and motivated to be here to help us prepare for Philly. He's had some really good training sessions," Noonan said. "The intensity has been good. I think he's come back in a really good way.
"It seems like maybe he's been hard done by, or there's a message to be sent, but what transpired prior to him leaving and in this incident are not concerning as far as a pattern of behavior. He came back in a really strong way and was hungry to go help Gabon and be in that camp, but when he was told that he'd be heading back to us, he was ready to come and join us.