It was a short offseason break for FC Cincinnati, but not one that went unvalued or unappreciated. While there were only 45 days between the official end of the 2023 season and the first day of preseason training earlier this week, the time to step away and reflect on the season was needed.
The short turnaround is part of the “new normal.” Historical reference to that phrase aside, a short offseason is the reward for being successful. Going deep into the MLS Cup Playoffs and earning entry to the Concacaf Champions Cup means you are going to have a shorter offseason than other MLS clubs. It’s a feature. Not a bug.
“The break was short. But you know, that's a good thing,” Pat Noonan said at his first press conference of 2024. “That means you went far in the playoffs and added another competition with the Champions Cup. So it's a quick turnaround, but it could be worse. I don't think we need to be complaining about those things.
“I'm excited that we're back at it and I think the guys are too.”
Success means playing games early and late in the calendar.
Given the additional cup competition being so early in the year, with the first match of the Concacaf Champions Cup kicking off on February 22 prior to opening day of the MLS season, a quick start to preseason training would be ideal when considering the expectations for the season Noonan clarified on Thursday.
While 2023 was a long, demanding year in terms of fixture congestion, with 45 matches across all competitions and the irregular scheduling created bizarre gaps in the calendar, the successes of the season were defined in those terms, not detracted by them. FCC persevered through difficult stretches and overcame them by empowering members of the club who may not have always been called on to stand out in big moments.
What Noonan made clear was that despite all those challenges – all the successes FCC earned along the way and how the 2023 season ended – the expectation remains the same. Consistent success is the standard and despite even more fixtures on the calendar in 2024, the attitude the team will take into the season will remain the same.
“We’ll look for consistency. We will continue to search for trophies. We were able to win the first one (the 2023 Supporters’ Shield) and the expectations have obviously changed since the beginning of 2022,” Noonan said, referring to his first season with FCC. “So how can we be consistent? How can we compete in every competition to win a trophy? I think we have good people in place to help us maintain some of the things that we've done well, and some of the ways in which we've improved over the last two years.
“That will be difficult, we know that, but you know, we have a confident group of directors, coaches and players that will continue to put our heads down and work and try to bring success to the club. So, it's easier said than done. But I'm confident that we have the right people to build off of last year, and if we're building off of last year, and in a successful way, then that means we're competing for trophies.”
It’s an expected approach from Noonan, and more largely the core of the braintrust of FCC, but throws water on the idea that because of additional competitions and more matches that somehow FC Cincinnati has to concede some part of their season. While major matches may start earlier this year, the attitude – or rather, expectation – of competition and success defines the pedagogy Pat Noonan, the 2023 MLS Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year, leads with.
“The only thing that changes for us to begin the year is the (Concacaf) Champions Cup. So how do we navigate these early weeks in preparation for a busier beginning to the season? Yes, there's been conversations around how can we find success with the Champions Cup, but also with league play,” Noonan explained. “I think we saw last year we had a decent idea of how to navigate it as the year progressed, and I'm confident we'll be able to use those experiences to help us early on in the season.
“Last year we also had a lot of rotation throughout the year and played a lot of different lineups, but were still able to win games, so you kind of figure out who you can trust. Well, now we'll look for those same answers early on to see who's going to help us start the season in a strong way. So I think a lot of what we experienced last year positions us to better understand how to navigate it in (2024) but specifically the beginning of the year.”
Historically speaking, success across years in MLS with the short offseason and stacking of competitions has made things difficult on the top teams in the league. There has not been a repeat Supporters’ Shield victory since LA Galaxy in 2010 and 2011. LAFC, who were runners-up in the 2023 Concacaf Champions League, finished eighth in the league table, and the Seattle Sounders, who won the 2022 iteration of the tournament, missed the MLS Cup Playoffs that season due to the challenges they faced thanks to that cup run.
"I think we lacked a little bit of that experience towards the end of the year last year," FCC captain Luciano Acosta said referring to not only the performance on the field but also how to handle a long season and its challenges. "I think that absolutely we've learned and if we're to get to that distance this year, to reach that point this year, we'll be ready we'll have that experience."
It’s not easy. Noonan alluded to this and clearly understands the challenges ahead. But a defeatist attitude begets defeat. There are similar success stories to consider. That same LAFC are now coming off back-to-back MLS Cup Final appearances (including a win). Philadelphia Union, finalists in 2022, finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and fell to The Orange and Blue in the Eastern Conference Semifinals while also finishing third in Leagues Cup.
Examples abound. As Noonan said, it’s easier said than done. But it’s not as if no one has ever seen success across a season of competitions when faced with all of the factors that lie ahead for FC Cincinnati in 2024.