FC Cincinnati (6-1-2) at New England (6-1-2).
It’s the premier fixture on the MLS schedule this weekend, and those words can be nothing but sweet to FCC supporters, who endured a tough first three MLS seasons and then white-knuckled their way to a 2022 playoff berth secured only on Decision Day.
We’re simply dealing in facts here. The Revs and FCC are points-level (20) not only at the top of the Eastern Conference, but also for the Supporters’ Shield. Granted, Los Angeles FC is the only remaining unbeaten side (5-0-3) in MLS, and they lead the league in points-per-game (2.25), having played only eight matches. FCC and New England are a hair behind at 2.22. But the glamor lads from LA, always a magnet for national media, don’t play in MLS this weekend, due to Concacaf Champions League commitments. And though Seattle and St. Louis both top FCC and New England in some media power rankings -- despite lesser records -- neither of those clubs has a high-profile opponent on Matchday 10.
But wait! – as they say on TV ads – there’s more. The formidable stat crew at Opta Sports have determined that Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game at Gillette Stadium will mark the first time two teams with at least 20 points have met this early in any of MLS’s 27 seasons.
FCC’s Pat Noonan met that one in his Thursday news conference with a head coach’s characteristic bemusement regarding stat geeks and inquiring sportswriters.
“Umm … well … that’s an interesting one,” Noonan said with a (very) slight smile. “Somebody dug deep for that, whoever dug it up. I’ll just say you have two teams that have been strong early on in terms of results, and I’m guessing that if you asked the opposing head coach (Bruce Arena) what he thought about that (stat), there wouldn’t be too much thought going into it. I think we’d both just say that our teams can be better, can improve. It’s just about who can step on the field and have a strong performance against another top team in the conference, working to remain there.”
Noonan played for the Revolution from 2003-07. Selected by New England with the ninth overall pick in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft, he scored 37 goals over 119 appearances. He ranks tied for seventh in club history in goals scored (37) and ninth in assists (29). FCC general manager Chris Albright also played for the Revolution, in 2008 and 2009.
Noonan had two coaching stints under current Revs’ boss Arena, indisputably the most successful and well-known soccer coach in U.S. history. The first ran from 2013-16 at LA Galaxy, and the second was with the U.S. Men’s National Team in 2017.
And FCC assistant coach Kenny Arena, of course, is Bruce’s son.
“I would guess this will be the seventh time I’ve coached against him,” said Kenny Arena, who came to FCC last year after MLS coaching stints with Galaxy and LAFC. “As much as I’m competing, and trying to beat him, I really just appreciate any time I get to see my family. Our relationship has gotten better and better as I’ve gotten older. We talk a bunch of times each week. I’m super happy he’s continued to be successful, and competing against each other is another amazing experience for both of us.”
Kenny also previously coached under Bruce with the Galaxy and the USMNT.
New England officially tops FCC for first place in league and conference standings due to a better goal differential and more goals scored. The Revolution has outscored opponents 15-8 compared to FCC’s 12-10. The Revs will enter the game with one more full preparation day than FCC, having played their U.S. Open Cup game this week on Tuesday while FCC played Wednesday
Under the ownership of the high-profile Robert Kraft family, the Revs have been a prominent MLS side since the hiring of Arena as “Sporting Director and Head Coach” in May of 2019. Arena, 72, has won a record five MLS Cup titles, two with D.C. United (1996-97) and three with LA Galaxy (2011-12-14). He tops the MLS coaching charts in regular-season wins (256) and playoff wins (35), and thus in total wins (291) as well. He coached the USMNT for 11 years (1998-2006 and 2016-17), qualifying for the World Cup in ’02 and ’06, with a 2-4-2 composite record. His 2002 team in Japan/Korea qualified out of Group Stage to the Quarterfinals. He also coached the USMNT to three Concacaf Gold Cup titles.
But New England remains short of stamping itself as a consistently elite club under Arena. They missed the playoffs last year at 10-12-12, and though the 2021 side won the franchise’s first Supporters’ Shield (Arena’s fourth), with a league-record 73 points, they lost on penalty kicks to New York City FC in the first round of the playoffs. Arena’s 2020 side won three playoff games after an 8-7-8 regular season, including a play-in to reach the bracket of 16, but they lost 1-0 at home to eventual Cup winner Columbus in the Eastern Conference final. In 2019, Arena was hired in May to rescue a 3-8-2 side and brought them home with an 8-3-10 finish. That was good for a seventh-seed playoff berth at 11-11-12, but the Revs lost 1-0 at Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs.
The Revs and the Orange and Blue enter Saturday’s clash off similar MLS results last weekend, each at home against foes with losing records. Each mounted 2-nil leads with plenty of time remaining but finished with less than fully satisfying 2-1 wins. Such is the province of top squads, to find some fault with success.
“They (the players) have done a good job to date (this season),” Arena said after getting past winless Kansas City. “But we can’t walk off the field feeling good about that performance. We could have done everything better the second half, from the start to the finish. It started where guys are standing around, not moving to the ball, not communicating, and it ends up with a breakaway that we can’t even convert. So, it was just a real sloppy half. Very disappointed in that.”
“Fortunately, we were able to hold them off,” Noonan said after FCC’s win over Portland. “But it was a difficult match, certainly, and I’m happy we found another way to win a game. You’d like to be able to see the game out in a more efficient way when you go up 2-0. The last 30 minutes was a little bit of a grind. The guys just keep figuring out ways to win. So, pleased with that, but there were still a lot of things that we struggled with. Turnovers in our defensive half. We had some really poor turnovers that they put us under a lot of pressure. We escaped a couple of those moments.”
FCC won their first-ever match vs. New England, prevailing 2-0 as the road team on March 24, 2019. This came during the Revs’ 3-8-2 start under coach Brad Freidel, who was replaced by Arena on May 14. And the Orange and Blue tied the Revs in the clubs’ most recent match, 2-2 at New England on July 3 of last season. But in between those bookends came five straight losses, all against Arena-coached clubs.
New England is 4-0-1 at home this season and has a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2) overall in MLS. FCC is 1-1-2 on the road this season.
Players to watch on Saturday?
For FCC, a great choice would be midfielder Álvaro Barreal, who earlier this week was cited as one of “10 Early MLS All-Star Selections” by mlssoccer.com.
“It’s hard to find a more productive attacking outside back in MLS than Álvaro Barreal,” the league website opined. “Actually, strike that. It’s impossible to find a more productive attacking outside back in MLS than FC Cincinnati's left wingback. So far this year, the Argentine winger-turned-defender leads all defenders in non-penalty xG+xAG (2.7). His speed, ball control and comfort both out wide and in central areas make him unique for one of the Eastern Conference's top squads.”
For New England, how about a brace of standouts -- 24-year-old Albanian striker Giacomo Vrioni and veteran midfielder Carles Gil. Vrioni is not a household MLS name but may be hitting his stride, having scored both Revs goals last week. Gil made his 100th MLS start last week, marking the occasion with his fourth assist of the year and team-high four chances created. With 25 games remaining in the season, Gil has set a new club mark for most assists in a three-season span (36 from 2021-2023), surpassing Lee Nguyen’s 2015-17 run (35).