When Pat Noonan came to Cincinnati to lead FC Cincinnati, the challenge before him was to help rebuild the club to include a culture that promoted, or created, an environment that would lead to trophies, championships and winning seasons.
Two years later, he and his assembled staff are well on their way to that, earning the club’s first ever playoff appearance in his first year, and now chasing down silverware in his second season that they are just weeks, if not days, away from clinching.
The pathway to creating that culture has not been easy but it has been distinct. The results Noonan has earned with the club are a direct signal of that, as in less than two seasons, FC Cincinnati have gone from three-time last place finishers to now the favorites to win the Supporters' Shield.
The key to the head coach's leadership success and style? Communication.
Noonan highlighted the mindset in his press conference surrounding the announcement of FCC captain Luciano Acosta’s contract extension and how he has been able to grow alongside the midfielders on and off the field.
“Things that I did wrong last year where I think (Acosta) wanted to rip my head off,” Noonan said. “He's obviously going to control himself in a way where nothing like that happens, but I assumed things, or didn't take the right approach, and I could see just how much it affected him as a person as a competitor.
“So it just becomes, ‘Okay, how do we prevent this? Just communicate and don't assume we're on the same page?’ So if there's any uncertainty, I'll bring him into my office. … You need to make bad decisions as a coach in regards to the player to figure him out a little bit better and to see how he reacts or responds to certain things on the field, off the field, and in private conversations.
“I just think our relationship has grown a lot in our time working together and I'd say it's in a pretty good place.”
Having open lines of communication between the head coach and captain has not only improved the team as a whole, but Acosta as an individual, helping to unlock the potential and bring him to where he is now: a Landon Donovan MLS MVP favorite and Golden Boot leader.
“There's been a lot of subtle things,” Noonan said of Acosta’s improvement as a player and captain. “How he communicates with his teammates and acts in terms of knowing that he's the captain of the team, where I think early on, it was maybe a little bit more uncomfortable.”
Acosta shared recently that FC Cincinnati was the first time he had ever been tapped as the captain of a club. It’s a responsibility he took incredibly seriously and has worked to improve with great effort.
“Especially with communication because it's not easy,” Noonan highlighted as a particular strength. “I know he's bilingual, but how you communicate to your teammates in big moments, sometimes that was new to him. I just think he's become more comfortable in that role.
“I think he understands as the captain of the team, too, and knowing that he can play the game at such a high level, all his teammates aren't able to do that consistently. So where there might have been frustration early now, it's being more patient and being more understanding, and then understanding how to pull guys aside. Or even in the heat of the moment, send a better message to get more out of his teammates.”
“Me and him, his family and my family, my kids, his kids, we all have a great relationship,” Acosta said of his head coach. “He's a great coach and we know together that we'll keep growing. But that was the key for us to have that good relationship, was to talk and to communicate.”
The relationship growth with Acosta shows signs of how the culture has grown between the two of them over time, and how it continues to grow under Noonan’s lead.
Aaron Boupendza’s integration to the lineup is a current example of how FC Cincinnati continues to work on communication and relationship building to augment and improve the soccer product on-field.
The Gabonese striker arrived in Cincinnati less than four months ago, and has scored four times in six MLS matches, yet still has FC Cincinnati GM Chris Albright admitting we have yet to see Boupendza’s best soccer yet.
To facilitate his improvement with the club, FC Cincinnati are prioritizing building the relationship and improving communication with the player.
“When a new player comes into an environment, he has to adjust to the city he's in, a city without his family. It's a very hard thing to do,” Acosta said of Boupendza’s arrival. “So we have to help him … every training it gets better. We have high hopes for him. He's a great player and we need a lot from him.”
Noonan also indicated that to help bridge the language gap, the club has brought in a translator. Boupendza is multilingual but primarily speaks French.
“We currently have a translator in the building that can help us,” Noonan said. “It's unique, but utilizing that asset more just to see how we can get Aaron to best understand our messaging, whether it’s on-the-field or off-the-field stuff, because sometimes when you understand a language, but maybe don't understand everything and shake your head because you don't want to come off as somebody that doesn't understand. I think we saw a little bit of that and assumed maybe he understood everything we were saying. And I'm talking quickly, so it's hard. So the translator has helped out.”
The extra effort is not unique to the Boupendza situation, but a further example of work done behind the scenes to build the relationship and ease the on-boarding process. FC Cincinnati’s player welfare department is an ever-growing and developing part of the FCC world.
“Finding ways to get them together and understand what they're seeing so that the dialogue from those players is more frequent,” Noonan added, speaking to the efforts made. “So there's a better understanding, hopefully, of the movements and the things they're seeing on the field.”