INTERVIEW | Head Coach Pat Noonan gives his thoughts on the preseason so far

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FC Cincinnati began its second half of the club’s 26-day preseason camp in Clearwater, Fla. on Monday with an evening training session at Walter Campbell Sports Park. Head Coach Pat Noonan sat down with to discuss what he’s seen from the first half of preseason, and what he hopes to get out of the club’s final 12 days in the Sunshine State.

The Orange and Blue concluded “phase two” of the preseason last Thursday, a two-week stint in Clearwater which included a 3-2 win in a 120-minute friendly against Austin FC, and a 3-0 win in 90 minutes against the University of South Florida. “Phase three” began Monday, and FC Cincinnati have three more preseason matches on the schedule, against Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution, and Nashville SC.

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What did you hope to achieve in phase two of preseason? Did you feel like you achieved it?

“In phase two, our goals were obviously to improve fitness,” said Noonan. “I think we were able to do that, specifically in some warmer conditions, which I think will benefit us as we go into colder weather to start the year.

“Second, experimentation with players in different positions, specifically along our backline where, because of player availability, we wanted to see how players adjusted to being tasked to do different things. Wing backs playing as outside center backs, primarily, so, we got some good answers there,” the FC Cincinnati head coach added.

In the first friendly against Austin, two groups of XI played 60 minutes each, with the exception of a few substitutions at different intervals. Against USF, two groups of XI played 45 minutes each, as hotter temperatures became a factor in the late Florida afternoon.

The days have continued to heat up in Florida, with temperatures hitting the low to mid 70s most days and mostly sunny skies as the club trains at least once a day, with occasional double sessions to focus on fitness.

“We experimented with some ideas with the ball in our build phase, and how we can be a little bit, I would say, either more efficient or with more ideas in how we go to goal,” he said. “We certainly need to improve there, I think, still, how we control space and how we connect our group to move the ball up the field was inconsistent at times, and you can see that in the games as well. So those were two of the things that I think in the second phase we experimented with a little bit more than phase one, as well as last year at this time.”

Phase two was also a chance for the club to see FC Cincinnati 2 players in the first-team environment. Defenders Kai Thomas and Bret Halsey, midfielders Salim Adams and Jesús Castellano, alongside goalkeeper Hunter Morse spent phases one and two with the first team but have returned to Cincinnati as FC Cincinnati 2 will begin preseason training in the coming days ahead of the MLS NEXT Pro season.

New FC Cincinnati signings Marco Angulo, Isaiah Foster, Stiven Jimenez, Paul Walters, Malik Pinto, as well as Wolverhampton Wanderers loanee Yerson Mosquera have also been able to incorporate themselves with the group.

“So I think overall, we got a lot of good information from our first leg here in Clearwater.”

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How would you compare the squad at this time last year to where they are now?

PN: “A lot less challenges because everything was so new. From the relationships of the staff members, to the relationships with our players, and getting across ideas of how we wanted to play, what we wanted the standards to look like, and accountability to look like. All of those things now a year later, are in many ways understood. So that may just be the beginning of preseason, and what their training structure looks like, to the daily routine, and then what we're looking for on the field. It's just more clarity in what we're doing. And so now we can start to really hone in on certain things that we could continue to do well from last year or things in areas where we needed to improve, to try to become a better team. And so when you when you can put aside all of the challenges of new relationships and new information, you can expand on things in a much more efficient way. And so the rhythm of everything we were doing, and the conversations we're having day in and day out areso much easier.”

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What is the target for the end of phase three? What would make the next 12 days a success?

“I want to see us improve with the ideas and decision-making with the ball,” said Noonan. “I think our reactions defensively have been pretty strong. How we look to win the ball, where and how we go to goal, I think there's been some good consistency there. And I think what I've noticed in the first three weeks, and certainly from the first leg of Clearwater, was when you're not fit, or when the brain shuts off because of fatigue, the decision making and trying to do too much and it becomes too much of an open game, transition game, because of poor turnovers.”

The emphasis remains on being better with the ball, improving in decision-making, and being better at going to goal as a group. A hallmark of Pat Noonan’s team in 2022 was an aggressive, pressing style of play where the team moved together to harass opponents and win the ball back. Aside from the press, it was about remaining connected and consistently playing together in possession.

While improving the crucial aspects of the game remains a focus, so too does Feb. 25, when FC Cincinnati will open at home for the first time in club history against Houston Dynamo FC. The last legs of preseason are a chance to see who will be in that XI and involved in that game when the 2023 regular season begins.

“We'll start to hone in on what our strongest group is and start to push that group to get more minutes with the three games,” said Noonan. “We'd like to be, with our group that we see going into the Houston game, as close to 90 minutes fit as possible. So, last year, I think we got to 75 is what I recall, in the Orlando game with most of our players. So we never hit 90 minutes for the majority of the group that started the season in Austin. So now, can we get 90 minutes fit? And I think we're in a good position to be able to get that with our three opponents.”

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Who has been the most impressive so far in preseason?

Noonan mentioned earlier in preseason, following the win over Austin, that midfielder Álvaro Barreal has been tremendous so far this preseason.

“Álvaro has been outstanding,” said Noonan after that game. “Not just [against Austin], but the entire preseason. I think he's really come in in a good way. Night and day from last year at this time. So been really pleased with him.”

Now, at the end of phase two, the head coach has praise for another Argentine midfielder in the squad.

“I think Lucho has been outstanding, both with quality and more consistency in the defensive organization, pressure to the ball both ways. How he communicates with his teammates, but how he defends the ball. And we know what he can do with the ball. It's up there with some of the best in the league. But he's also one of our smartest defensive players and people don't always see that, but he has a very good idea of how to go to the ball. So I think he's been really strong,” he said of the captain.

In addition to Lucho, Noonan praised Junior Moreno and Yuya Kubo, two central midfielders who played big roles in 2022, and return for 2023. Brandon Vazquez, who was called up to the USMNT’s January Camp and returned to the team with a goal in his first cap, was lauded for his sharpness early in the season, and his evolution after a breakout 2022.

“I think, in the middle of the field Junior and Yuya have continued to improve over the course of the preseason. I think Brandon has been extremely sharp. From a year ago today, to where he is now, it's a completely different player. And we've now seen that for the entire year in 2022. But he's come in and been really strong. So those are some of the names that stick out to me so far.”

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What does the team need to work on as preseason continues?

When asked about where he wants to see more from his team, Noonan emphasized that the group as a whole is continuing to improve in fitness, in decision-making, in going to the ball, but he also mentioned the team’s defending on the whole, and how the club can get better in 2023.

PN: “I'd like to see our backline be better with the decision making on the ball in how we connect forward passes, how we invite pressure, and how we show more composure under pressure. “Because when we get that from them, how that initiates our attack, and how it helps us to stay better connected defensively, will be important to our success. So, I think that aspect of our team, and our game needs to improve. And I think with a lot of new faces, how can we defend forward? The tendency, at times, is to drop off and just protect, go into protect mode.

“We want to be aggressive and brave in how we defend higher up the field. So when the moments are right, if we're in the right positions, we can do that. But seeing how our group recognizes the moments where we can get pressure up to the ball higher up the field in the moments off of the careless turnover, and we can't get to the ball? How do we deal with those moments? Where we have to defend space? And then how do we protect the space behind? Those were areas I thought we improved with over the course of 2022. But you could see uncertainty at times with new faces that are getting new information, which is natural, but I think with and without the ball, those are two things that we can be better with along our backline and as a whole defensively in how we defend higher up the field.

“The last part is our first line of pressure. Consistently being able to make play more predictable for where the ball goes and how we want to win balls. I think when fatigue sets in, when it gets hot and you shut down at times, we haven't been consistent enough in that aspect of our game and I think I'd like to see us be a little bit better in these last three games of having our first line of pressure better organized and better disciplined and being able to make it harder for teams to play through us.”