As the MLS Cup Playoffs progress, the need for attention to detail raises and mistakes are amplified.
For the most part, FC Cincinnati players accomplished the goal of raising their play in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. They played to a clean sheet match with limited drama in front of their own net, but struggled to create in the final third to find the winning moment until the 90+ minute. They undoubtedly rose to the moment as they have so many times this season and earned their victory despite being down several starters.
The nuances are the improvement points Pat Noonan is now focusing on to try and improve for the Eastern Conference Finals matchup this weekend. With just one week to implement the needed adjustments, nailing every note is vital. In order to be a championship team, attention to detail, decision making and holding up under pressure are all a part of the composure equation needed to win it all.
“I think there were stretches where we tried to do too much,” Noonan said postgame of FC Cincinnati’s performance against Philadelphia. “I think decision-making can be better. That's part of the composure that I talked about, managing the game and not trying to do too much.”
Noonan was critical of his team's performance Saturday despite the win, but did laugh at himself in the postgame presser for the harsh critique after a victory.
After all, FCC delivered the needed defensive performance with four starters out of the lineup, including the 2023 MLS Defender of the Year, and the team’s leading tackling midfielder, despite a three-week break from action. On the other hand, the 2023 Sigi Schmidt MLS Coach of the Year knows what it takes to win a championship and isn’t going to settle for anything less.
Noonan has won two MLS Cup titles as a player and a third as an assistant coach with LA Galaxy. Assistant coach Kenny Arena was also an assistant on that LA Galaxy side and Dominic Kinnear won two MLS Cups as a head coach with Houston Dynamo back-to-back in 2006-2007 and another two as an assistant with San Jose Earthquakes.
All of this is to say. Noonan and his staff know exactly how hard it is to win the final prize, and the commitment to excellence late in the season needed. If it takes focusing on the smallest things and making them big things, that attention – no matter the scrutiny – is worth it.
“How you lose focus at times because of the opposition or a call that doesn't go your way – that stuff still has to improve. We can always be better in those moments and there was some of that tonight,” Noonan continued. “We'll talk about those things, but if you want to be a championship team, you have to get all of these things right.
“Each game that you advance, the margins for error are smaller, and you have to be improving as you go through it. I think there's some things that we could certainly improve on tonight to better position us next Saturday.”
The strategy of meticulous attention to detail is not new, in large part that commitment to improvement and focus on the small things is what has gotten FC Cincinnati to this position. To be able to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs and lift a trophy as the best team in the regular season requires a months-long commitment to excellence every day.
Why should we expect that to change now? When things are at their tightest, the stakes the highest they’ve been, the foundations of success shine the brightest.
“Here we are after a victory … me being a little critical. Shocker,” Noonan laughed in his presser. “It's good to look at this game to try to make some improvements for next weekend.”
The Orange and Blue have answered the bell at every turn. When needed most, when the moment called for it, FC Cincinnati have committed to their goals that they set out for themselves and built on it at every level.
“These were the goals from the beginning of the year,” Noonan added. “One of our goals (was) positioning us to play the entirety of the playoffs in front of our home fans. … Hopefully we can make the right improvements and have a strong week …”
The game-winning combination of Álvaro Barreal to Ian Murphy to Yerson Mosquera was only the third goal this season that FCC scored that included only defenders as goal scorer and assist providers, but the first with two players getting an assist, only highlighting the uniqueness of the moment.
“There was nothing that we've prepared at any point ever that went Ian (Murphy) to Yerson to goal, so it was nice to see them come up with a play,” Noonan joked post game.
In the build up to Saturday’s match, the gaffer highlighted the reality that playoff matches often come down to one or two big moments and the team that capitalizes on those moments will find victory. That was the case again, but this time it was an unlikely trio of contributors that found the big moment and didn’t let it slip away.
“I said before the game to the guys, in these moments in the playoffs, strange things happen,” Noonan continued. “How you go after a game if you're down a goal, how you protect the lead, maybe guys being asked to do different things than they're accustomed to, because it's win or go home.”
“I gave him some motivation. Before the game, I talked to him," captain Luciano Acosta said of his conversation with Mosquera. "I told him that if he didn't have a yellow card, he would contribute, maybe in goals. He definitely deserves this. I told him after the game that maybe, in another life, he was the number nine."