Heightened competition in training a byproduct of health, time off in lead up to match with Philadelphia

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The two-week break between matches has been helpful in FC Cincinnati training. Still, with the game rapidly approaching and kickoff nearly imminent, the desire to hit the field has ramped up. An antsy feeling has taken over at Mercy Health Training Center. 

A byproduct of the time off has been the team’s improved health. Training has been as full as possible as players with nagging injuries, like Dominique Badji, who was out with a quad injury, are back in full. Leading to a more complete picture of the group and giving head coach Pat Noonan a longer bench to pick from in team selection. 

“One of the biggest positives is healthy bodies,” Noonan said before Saturday’s match with Philadelphia Union. “We have a lot of guys to choose from. It just opens up doors for more selections for starters in the reserves, and that’s a good thing. 

“I think this is the time you need healthy bodies and to be the most competitive in your training environment. So that’s a positive. … I was pleased with the last 10 days and how it’s looked in training for some of the things that we’re able to work on.” 

A byproduct of the break has been the ability to reflect on the last time that FCC had a break of this length as well as what is ahead for The Orange and Blue as they prepare to challenge for their first MLS trophy: the Supporters’ Shield.

“We’re gonna try to build from that last loss that we had against Orlando and make sure we start this stretch in the right way,” FCC defender Matt Miazga said. “We’re definitely aware of the situation at hand. I think everyone realizes what position we’re in and I can assure you that we’re all bought in and we’re all in this together.” 

The last time FC Cincinnati had an extended break between matches, in the aftermath of Leagues Cup, the performance in their return match at Columbus Crew left players frustrated and disappointed. In the days that followed the 3-0 loss, many described the performance as “uncharacteristic,” “frustrating,” or “not who we are.” 

The team followed up the poor performance with a strong performance against Inter Miami CF and wins over NYCFC and Atlanta United FC. But that feeling has stuck with FC Cincinnati players and isn’t a feeling they want to replicate. 

“We haven’t lost much this year,” Miazga said. “So that feeling at the beginning of a long stretch, like that was new to us. We try to kind of channel that and make sure that we come out flying.

“We’ve had two weeks off, so we’re kind of raring to go now.” 

International returns

With the international window closing, FC Cincinnati players away with their national teams have either returned or are en route to rejoin the club for the stretch run of the season.

Santiago Arias (Colombia) and Junior Moreno (Venezuela) both returned from CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. While neither player appeared in either of their country’s two games, Noonan believes their presence with the national team is valued regardless. 

“I always enjoy when our players are representing their national teams, and they have the opportunity,” Noonan said. “Whether they’re selected or not, it’s still valuable experience and their involvement in those groups as experienced players who have been around can help younger players and can still serve a purpose.

“Of course they want to be on the field … but when you’re not, what kind of teammate are you? And I think they can still be valuable assets to those national teams, despite the minutes not being there for them.”

Aaron Boupendza is the only player away from the club as he travels back from Gabon after being called to his national team for AFCON qualifying. Boupendza started in the match against Mauritania, but after a teammate was shown a red card in the 5th minute, The Panthers could not overcome being short handed for the remainder of the match and failed to qualify. 

FC Cincinnati general manager Chris Albright says that Boupendza’s return to Cincinnati was delayed due to travel out of Gabon, as return flights would require at least two international stops. Albright said the plan was to have the striker meet with the club while on the road in Philadelphia, and Noonan said it is “realistic” that he plays in Saturday’s match.

The biggest relief, Noonan says, about all of his returning players is that they come back to the club healthy and ready for action. 

“It’s just nice to see them back with the group after being away with their national team,” Noonan said Thursday after training when Arias and Moreno were full participants. “They’re back healthy, and you kind of hold your breath and just hope they come back in a similar fashion to when they left.

“(The coaching staff had) good conversations with them upon their return and they’re in a good physical condition, good mental condition and ready to go.”

Saturday viewing guide

In addition to FC Cincinnati’s Saturday night kickoff in Philadelphia, there are several matches with implications relating to FCC and their battle for securing an improved playoff position, a CONCACAF Champions Cup bid and ultimately the Supporters’ Shield. 

  • Fifth place Columbus Crew travel to third place Orlando City SC. Any result would cause separation of some form from FCC in the standings. That match kicks off simultaneously with The Orange and Blue and the Union at 7:30 p.m. EDT.
  • St. Louis CITY SC head to Houston Dynamo FC for a 8:30 p.m. EDT kickoff. CITY currently sit tied for second in the Supporters’ Shield race, and Dynamo are undefeated in their last five and have not conceded a goal. 
  • New England Revolution travel to Colorado Rapids in a late night fixture, kicking off at 9:30 p.m. EDT from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. The Revs are also in second place and dropping points would significantly aid in FCC’s trophy chase.
  • Atlanta United FC host Inter Miami CF in the early game Saturday, kicking off at 5 p.m. EDT. Atlanta dropping points would inch FCC closer to formally securing home-field advantage in the first round of the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.