Rivalries focus intensity and open old wounds, but clear eyes lead the way forward for FC Cincinnati players looking to continuing winning streak

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The last time Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati met, it ended in heartbreak. “Another team celebrating on your home pitch, lifting a trophy meant to be yours, and marching on to live out the future you saw for yourself, all while abruptly having your season end,” has been the way some describe feeling after being in a car crash.

A sudden, abrupt halt in place.

But time has passed, and wounds have healed. Scars may remain, but the new year has brought new opportunities. The feeling of frustration may remain but now it fuels the fire for 2024.

It’s worth noting that the painful feeling would have been there regardless of the opponent. While the storytelling notes of the Hell is Real rivalry coming to the Eastern Conference Finals last December certainly color the story, the outcome would have left anyone feeling the sameDoes the opponent make the scars a little deeper? Maybe. But the scars would be there.

Now, on the visit back with Columbus, making the trip two hours Northeast to Lower.Com Field for 2024’s first playing of Hell is Real, the rivalry is renewed again, but the mindset heading into it is focused on the larger goals—not focusing on the past and trying to rewrite history.

"We've been training and playing with a lot of intensity. Columbus is a good team. We got to match their intensity," Alvas Powell said about the weekend matchup. "You know they've got good, good, good players. So we have to focus more on ourselves because we still have not played our best yet."

Rivalries typically live with the club and the supporters. While there is consistency between seasons in terms of players and coaches who take the field for either side, there is also massive turnover. In this case, only one player on either side has been with the clubs in all 13 playings of Hell is Real. That player, Nick Hagglund, wasn't available for the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals and has only ever appeared in six of those matches. Yuya Kubo will become the most capped player in the history of the Darby should he appear Saturday and play in his 11th Hell is Real.

The preparation for such a game varies among players. There isn't a stock way of preparing for a big game, which is (for what it's worth) the general consensus among players regardless of how they play. The rivalry makes it a big game, but like other big games before it, preparation for those kinds of games requires more focus.

"It's extra motivation, but (we can't go) too far to where it's going to unfocus the group," Roman Celentano said before beginning training earlier this week. "It's gonna be used in the right way. To lock us in and make sure we're ready to go next weekend. So, I mean, I hope the guys get up for this. It's the game you have to get up for to be a part of this club. So, you know, it's, it's fun looking forward to it. It's always circling the calendar. So I'm excited it's here."

"I can't say anything about this team because it's obvious that they are good," Obinna Nwobodo said on Columbus. "So it's going to be an interesting game because of the way both teams have always been in a rivalry, and this game is not going to be an exception, it is going to be the same."

The match comes at an interesting spot in the calendar for both clubs. Columbus is coming off a bye week, having not played since their Concacaf Champions Cup win 10 days ago against CF Monterrey at Estadio BBVA. FC Cincinnati is coming off a win over Orlando City SC on Saturday that Noonan and his players continued to lament their performance in Thursday's weekly press conference.

The win, according to Nwobodo, makes it easier to learn from mistakes in the aftermath and helps grow confidence in the group. It reminds them that winning is possible, but it colors the week's training as needing to focus on themselves and sorting out their own problems, not looking at the opponent as anything other than that. The opponent.

"We try not to make it that way. We try to be able to focus more on our game and not to get in our head," Nwobodo added on the intensity of training in the lead-up to a rivalry game. "You may start seeing some things, some different faces, some different comments and it can get into your head and make you try to do things differently from what you usually do."

"We know that (Orlando) was not near our best performance, and that was something that we could learn from because like I've said, it's (easier) to learn from winning than to learn from when you lose," Nwobodo added. "Because even when you play well and you don't win, it brings you down and there is no momentum. You can't get your winning mentality on. But when you win, it's easy to make adjustments and to find things that were wrong in the previous game. And then keep going."

While the passions of the rivalry obviously cast a shadow on everyone involved, and the desire to win week-over-week is present regardless of opponent, for Pat Noonan, the past is in the past, and there's no changing what has happened before he arrived or even since he's been here. The focus is not on the past or righting the wrongs of the past. The focus is on winning the game in front of him with the guys he has currently.

"I think they're a very good team that's a challenge for us, the same as everybody else," Noonan said Thursday. "You know, they got the better of us last year in two of the three (matches). And then I guess (in 2022), you know, different coach, different group. That year I don't think we got a victory. So I think it's safe to say, and I'll only speak to our period of working together, but they've gotten the better of us.

"They've had good teams with good players, and they've performed well in our matchups, especially at their place. That's where we're looking to improve, because I think the two games that we've played there haven't been good enough performances, so (we) didn't deserve to win. But hopefully, we can have a better showing on Saturday. We haven't talked about previous games or setbacks or, you know, performances, it's what can we do to be successful on Saturday."

Noonan also pointed out that while some pieces of the team remain from last season's Eastern Conference final, five starters (Robinson, Bucha, Orellano, Baird and Yedlin) are new to the group, with another, who is expected to be a contributor in Kelsy, just joined the team a week ago.

"None of these guys were here," the Head Coach added. “So that's a different group, and we need to think about our group that's going to be on the field Saturday. Help them understand what this matchup looks like and what it means to our club and fanbase."

The context of the match around Mercy Health Training Center does feel more like a "big game" rather than anything more specific. As many pointed out, FCC has played in a few big games this season with its entrance in the Concacaf Champions Cup and other challenging away days. So, while that may be a distinction without a difference, it seems as though everyone is focused on internal improvement.

That internal focus, though, comes in many different flavors.

"Honestly rivalry games, at this point in my career, I treat like any other games and I think for me as a player, if I get too worked up about a game that throws off my performance," DeAndre Yedlin said. "Other players are completely different. I understand that. It's like some players need to get that fire going. For me, I've always tried to give my all no matter what team we're playing. So whether it's Columbus or Salt Lake I'm going to try to go 100%. Three points against Columbus or three points against Miami or three points against Seattle, they're all solid three points. You know, it's not like we get extra points. So a win feels great and a loss feels terrible. And we obviously want to win every game."

"I mean, I'm all for guys using bad feelings as fuel," Celentano said after the win in Orlando. "I feel like if you're playing against someone you hate personally, I feel like it makes you play better. So I'm cool with that, for guys that feel certain ways if they want to do that. But for me, it's just about… I just want to do everything I can between now and the next week to get mentally and physically ready just to go out and perform because we want to get our lick back on them because last game didn't go too well."

There isn't a right way to mentally gear up for a game, but whatever the process, the outcome needs to be focused. It's a game against one of the best teams in MLS on the road; it will take a full effort to get a result, regardless of who they are.

"It's going to take a strong performance; these guys know it," Noonan said Thursday. "You can't have flybys, you can't have guys running to the ball recklessly. You have to be able to have the footwork to deal with creative players on the ball and move the ball in ways that you try to manipulate things how you've trained."