With a two-week break between matches nearing an end, FC Cincinnati have used the international window to focus on self improvement and preparation for their final match of the regular season, as Atlanta United FC come to TQL Stadium on Saturday night for Decision Day 2023.
With a win, FC Cincinnati would secure a tie for the third-most points in a MLS single-season (71) and tie a league record for the most points at home (43). While FCC’s position in the playoffs is locked in, Atlanta is still battling for preferential seeding in the bracket and needs a win to potentially move into the fifth seed, with a loss dropping them as low as the seventh seed.
“The focus is on Atlanta,” FCC head coach Pat Noonan said Thursday. “It's important to have a good performance … with the preparation solely on Atlanta. For me, in these moments finishing out the season, it's about having your strongest team ready to go to have some consistency moving into the playoffs, so we will have a strong group out on the field prepared for a tough opponent.”
The last time FCC took the field, they lifted the Supporters’ Shield in front of their home fans. Now, with their final goal this season in sight, the break has allowed for the celebrations of the recent past to play out and refocus for the task at hand.
“It was a great accomplishment. I’m done talking about it because the guys know what's ahead of us,” Noonan said. “I do think that when you start to listen to (the team) talk and you see them out on the field, they've moved on. Now it's about finishing the season strong on Saturday.
“I think the guys are motivated in a good way and prepared in a good way for the start of the postseason.”
Given the awkward timing of the break, it could be seen as a negative to enter the final week of the season with significant time off. But Noonan feels as though the progress made in this window, given the circumstances, has been nothing but positive.
“I just thought it was a really good international break for us. Better than most,” Noonan said. “I think the break came at a good time … even with the players that we lost to international duty, training was good. You get a little bit more time to work on some things from our own side, but also in preparation for what we might expect out of Atlanta.”
Academy steps up
With four FCC first teamers away on international duty and training back at MHTC needing to march on, FC Cincinnati reached into their Academy to give two players from their U19 side the opportunity to step in and help out.
Ryan Belal and Jio Mora suited up to train with Pat Noonan’s squad, serving an important organizational role of allowing the continuing of full-fledged training. At the same time, FCC prepare for their final regular season match this Saturday and the MLS Cup Playoffs that start just after it.
“The alignment between the Academy and the First Team through the Second Team is critical,” Larry Sunderland, director of player development, said. “The ability of players to actually feel that tangible alignment by, on occasion, training with the first team gives them a sense of actually where they stand in that whole player pathway process. It also sends a good message to everybody in the Academy, everybody on the second team, that guys will get an opportunity to move up.
“Obviously, it’s a different level when you move up to the first team. The speed of the game, the decision making elements to it are much faster, much quicker. So it’s really good for these guys to attend and get a feel for what it takes to do that, and to give them a better idea of where they stand in the process.”
By suiting up for the first team, the Academy players allowed the normal day-to-day training process to proceed uninterrupted. Reports from players and coaches alike indicate that both young players were responsible, engaged and diligent in participating in training to keep the typical flow of things consistent.
“That’s what ultimately is going to help you to grow and get better with those guys, getting the opportunity,” FC Cincinnati 2 head coach Tyrone Marshall said. “It’s a big thing. How do you embrace that as a player? It’s obviously going to be a big step for you. You come in and you’re not starstruck, you perform, show you have quality and who knows what happens. Just need to continue to work hard.”
Belal, 17, made three appearances this season with FC Cincinnati 2 in MLS NEXT Pro. The Maryland native subbed on twice before making his first start on September 24 against Orlando City SC 2, where he played a full 90 minutes and scored his first professional goal. Belal has nine goals in nine UPSL games with the U19s this season.
Mora, 17, made the matchday roster for FCC2 eight times this season and appeared as a substitute four times. The midfielder came on for Marshall’s side in each of the final three matches of the MLS NEXT Pro season.
The U19s play in the Ohio region of the UPSL and are 8-1-0 with 36 goals.
“It’s just natural if a player gets into the first team environment that they’re going to improve,” Sunderland added. “There’s a confidence factor which is really, really important to the development of a player. When they get moved up to the first team, whether it’s for a short training opportunity or for a longer period of time, it builds their confidence. So when they come back they take on more of the game and maybe take on greater leadership opportunities within the academy. It’s only positive.”
International duty contributions
Speaking of international duty, the four FC Cincinnati players who joined their national teams this window played vital roles in their teams' successes.
Santiago Arias and Yerson Mosquera made starts for Colombia as the duo helped Los Cafeteros earn points in their 2026 World Cup qualifying window. Arias started in the first match against Uruguay and assisted on the game's first goal, helping in a 2-2 draw. Mosquera started in the second match and kept a clean sheet against Ecuador in a nil-nil draw. Mosquera also subbed for Arias in the first match in the 90th minute.
Junior Moreno made the start for Venezuela in their World Cup qualifying match against Brazil. He played all 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw. La Guardia Nacional also earned an important 3-0 win over Chile, but Moreno did not appear in the match.
Aaron Boupendza scored the lone goal for Gabon in a 1-1 draw with Guinea. The two nations played in a friendly leading up to their CAF World Cup qualifying opening matches next month, meeting at Algarve Stadium in Portugal for a neutral site matchup. Boupendza converted from the penalty spot for his sixth goal for Les Panthéres.