The switch to the knockout rounds of a tournament presents elevated stakes to the teams participating. On the one hand, pathways to glory and trophies exist; on the other hand, a loss means you’re eliminated and not playing for three weeks, in this case.
The change in stakes, though, has not altered how The Orange and Blue prepare for their Leagues Cup Round of 32 match with Nashville SC, with players sticking to the plan provided by the coaching staff.
“For us it is still the same way we want to approach every game, with what coach has for us,” midfielder Obinna Nwobodo said. “Coach has a specific way he wants us to play and our job is to watch the games, read the games and see what happens to see where we can make corrections and where we can improve.”
The largest difference in training thus far has been at the end of practice, with the team practicing penalty kicks in case they are faced with a shootout to determine who advances to the next round.
“We don’t (usually) practice penalties,” Nwobodo added. “But in preparation, it is the same approach. We approach every game trying to win and trying to go after every team. Not just to not concede goals, but also to score goals. So there is no difference.”
“This will be the third time we’ve faced off in terms of how the games look (we) don’t anticipate drastic changes,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said of the matchup. “Some subtle differences, but we anticipate a lot of the same from our last two games and know that they’re a very difficult team to play against.”
While preparation for the match remains the same, the game’s intensity is a factor that players and coaches are ready for.
FC Cincinnati has been successful this season in knockout matches, going 3-0-1 (with a win in PKs) in the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, earning them a spot against Inter Miami in the upcoming semifinals on August 23. That experience bodes well for the club as they deal with this match and future win-or-go-home matches.
“It’s already making us better, to play more games, more competitions and be in more meaningful games,” Nwobodo said of the opportunities to play in knockout round games. “As many games as we can play, as much confidence as we can get. So it’s better as a team.”
“The game will feel different,” Noonan said of the atmosphere. “There’s no tomorrow if you don’t have a good performance.
“Things present themselves that you typically don’t see in regular season play. Win-or-go-home adds some intensity certainly, but a lot depends on your opponent, your form, how you’re playing the game, but with the recognition that you can’t be off on the night or you’re done.”
Noonan highlighted the importance of these big moments and how they can prepare you for how things play out later in the season. In his pre-game press conference Thursday at Mercy Health Training Center, the head coach highlighted the importance of getting off to a strong start as a key to the match. Not having to play risky late to find a goal in a do-or-die scenario bodes well for the team, and alternatively, learning how to fight for a goal late can provide experience for matches later in the year.
“We experienced that last year in the playoffs,” Noonan said. “Where you’re down a goal and maybe you have a very aggressive attacking unit on the field … preparing guys for situations like that.”
The path to a Leagues Cup title will require five victories from here, a challenging stretch of play as it forces teams to do so with quick turnarounds. The five knockout stage games will be played in 16 days, a three-day average between fixtures.
With the quick turnarounds, routine and depth will be vital to successful teams as players who likely don’t play major roles will be called into action to make sure fitness and energy is at its highest.
Noonan has spoken about the team being more prepared for the tournament due to the depth with which they have been forced to use and found success. With players away on international duty, injured and handling immigration paperwork, the metal of FCC’s roster has been tested. Twenty players have started matches for the club this season, and eight players have substituted in eight or more games.
“I feel confident in the group,” Noonan says. “There’s no reason to not feel that way.”
Reinforcements on the way
Santiago Arias is expected to rejoin the club Friday and begin a fitness plan to have him return to action after spending three weeks away. The defender has been in his native Colombia sorting out immigration paperwork since the beginning of Leagues Cup.
Arias has been on a workout plan provided to him by the club in his time away, and Noonan indicated he would be day-to-day and would have conversations with the player to chart a course to a return-to-match action.
While he has yet to feature in a Leagues Cup match, Arias has been rostered by the club in the tournament and is eligible to be selected when he is deemed available by the club.