The club has never been in this position before.
Saturday night could see FC Cincinnati lifting their first MLS trophy, but you would never know it from watching training from afar. As the weekend match approached, FCC maintained their usual cadence in practice while similarly keeping their intensity levels measured.
“I feel like we've just been preparing for it like a normal game,” defender Ian Murphy said. “We're just trying to go into it just with the same mindset that we always do and try to get three points.”
FC Cincinnati have played in important matches in the last 12 months. U.S. Open Cup games, the knockout rounds of Leagues Cup, and the 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs all stand out as significant, high-stakes games for this core of players. While this Saturday's fixture at Toronto FC is not exactly the same, these situations have helped The Orange and Blue prepare for the pressure that comes with the potential opportunities for silverware with every game that follows.
“I feel like we've had and we've been through some tough moments and difficult situations,” Murphy said. “So I feel like that's prepared us for this moment.”
Clinching games can come with higher pressure. Something about the finality of the match, with the goal so tangibly available, increases the stakes of what otherwise would be a very standard 90 minutes of soccer. In a vacuum, matchday 35 is not necessarily – or inherently – exciting, or should I say more exciting than any other FCC matchday, but with the added stakes of a Supporters’ Shield trophy, it becomes as intense as any knockout stage match could.
“The players know,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said ahead of the match with Toronto FC. “Go win a game and you’re holding a trophy.”
Four FC Cincinnati players have won the Supporters’ Shield in the past: Ray Gaddis and Sergio Santos with Philadelphia in 2020, Nick Hagglund with Toronto FC in 2017, and Matt Miazga twice with New York Red Bulls in 2013 and 2015.
The first thing that comes to mind when asked what the biggest difference between this week, this upcoming match, and any other is that there is a full week of build-up to the game. Instead of having a three-game week, The Orange and Blue had a full week to recover and prepare for Toronto FC. It’s a welcome bit of rest for players this late in the season as nagging but non-concerning ailments can accumulate from the grind of a 34-match league schedule.
So rather than feeling the pressure that comes with achieving a goal the club has set out for themselves from the start of the season, many are just grateful to have extra recovery days this late in the year.
“We look at it the same way we've been all season. Just one game at a time, focus on the present moment, which is training and preparing and enjoying that,” Miazga said of the week leading into Saturday night's match with TFC. “We're in a good spot right now, but we know it can only get harder from here.”
The uniqueness of Saturday’s match is not lost on players. On the one hand it is just, as Miazga would put it, one of 34 matches. But as Noonan has said, everyone knows what is at stake. Finding that balance in approach could be tricky. Still, the group has decidedly landed on the ‘one of 34’ approach in training while acknowledging that once kickoff comes, the effort and fight needed to secure a result may closer resemble a ‘one of one’ scenario.
“It's just part of the journey. So it's another game that is going to take us to where we want to get to,” Miazga added on Friday before departing for Toronto. “Right now, it's different because we're not in that moment. I think once we start warming up, having that locker room talk before the game, we're gonna realize this is a big opportunity for a lot of us.
“In football, there's not a lot of chances where you can be in these positions. So we have to make sure that there's no regrets and that we leave everything on the pitch. That’s something we’ve tried to do all year … but I think all of us are motivated to put in a shift tomorrow, even an extra push because we realize where we are.”
It is, in some ways, just any other match against an Eastern Conference opponent. But rarely in ‘just any other match’ is glory, trophies and history waiting on the other side of the referee's final whistle.
FCC has won many MLS matches this season (18 to be exact) in many different ways. They’ve led from the beginning, scored late match winners, and come from losing positions to earn a result. They did so at home, on the road, in Ohio, in the United States and Canada. They’ve even done it against clubs from other leagues and countries.
In many ways, FC Cincinnati has been here before, needing a result on the road for a much-needed three points. So, in that sense, the club is ready; they’ve ‘been there before.’
But what comes after the result …?
That’s where things get special.