CLEARWATER, Fla. – Preseason training is an opportunity for a fresh start. The results of the previous year can be left behind with a new story to be told. For FC Cincinnati, part of that new story is continuing last season's excellence while doing so with fresh faces.
FC Cincinnati has three new first team players in training camp this year, with two more draft picks and one new member of FC Cincinnati 2 joining them for their trip to Clearwater. The free agents – Miles Robinson, Corey Baird and Kipp Keller – all arrive with significant MLS experience but are new to the organization, having just joined the team or spent less than a week in training. The draft picks – Brian Schaefer and Kenji Mboma Dem – have yet to sign formal deals with FC Cincinnati, but are getting their first taste of professional soccer. Nico Benalcazar has been a stalwart in the NYCFC academy and MLS NEXT Pro for eight years and is now getting a fresh start at a new club.
"It's always better to have players in as early as possible, where they're not playing catch up," head coach Pat Noonan said before the club's departure to Clearwater. "There's a lot more stoppages probably than we typically have as the year progresses, and there's a better understanding of what we're looking for."
Of the new arrivals, Miles Robinson was the only one to not rejoin the group for the week-long training in Cincinnati before heading south. For good reason, though, as he, Roman Celentano and Ian Murphy were all called to the annual January camp for the U.S. Men's National Team. The trio met up with the club in Florida and have now partaken in their first formal training of the year.
The rest of the group, though, made significant strides in the first few days of training camp and feel fully ingrained in the group now that the team has begun outdoor sessions in Florida.
"You can see the progression from the early stages," Noonan added. "It's us being able to teach more.
"I enjoy these moments a lot. I like seeing the players’ ambition and willingness to learn. So that's why it's always a priority in the offseason. When you're looking at player additions, how quickly can we get them in-market? How quickly can we get them acclimated on the field and off the field to see a good version of those players in their new environment when the season starts."
The opportunity to all get on the same page early in the season is invaluable. It also represents a fresh start for everyone. Aaron Boupendza, signed as a designated player last July, for example, is going through his first preseason camp with the club after being forced, due to the timing of his circumstance, to play catchup midseason. It can be challenging to integrate into a new team at the best of times, doing so midseason amid a Supporters’ Shield chase with the stakes as high as they can be, even more so. Mix in international duty appearances with 18-hour flights, and it can get hectic.
Boupendza still delivered in his debut season with FCC. The Gabonese number nine cashed in six goals and two assists in 17 appearances last season across all competitions. Still, the opportunity to acclimate through a full offseason is vital, according to team leaders, and may unlock another level of everyone's game because of it.
"I think that's what preseason is more about … jelling and bonding with the team, getting as much training as we can possibly get before the season starts," Matt Miazga told FCCincinnati.com. "And in warmer weather, too, it is extremely helpful."
"It's about staying together and realizing 'these are the guys I'm gonna go to war with.' So we have to stay together … but off the pitch (it is) breakfast together, lunch together, dinner together, driving with our vans to the training, training, doing team activities together … so at the end it's like 'Alright, I'm settled. I can relax. I can just focus on my football and make it happen.'"
Miazga is now in his second preseason camp with FCC, but is entering his third season with the club. This time last year, he was in the same situation Boupendza now sees himself in, starting the season with the club for the first time after transferring in from overseas in the summer and seeing great success in his first stint with the club despite the shorter window.
The connections forged over preseason camp are tight because of the proximity to each other that simply can't be replicated any time else. Twenty-eight days of training together, eating together and spending time together, without any other engagements, expedites a process of togetherness that helps the team on and off the pitch.
Intensity in training is standard for FC Cincinnati. It's the expectation. But part of preseason programming is building relationships, an admittedly much less intense affair by nature.
"I've had those conversations with the veterans and leaders on this team … about ways that we can get the group together," FCC captain and reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP Luciano Acosta said. "We want to be the same group as last year. That group with the mentality, the winning mentality, a strong mentality. We want every player on this team to feel like when they're called upon, they're ready to play."
Acosta is not alone, though, in this pursuit. The team leadership corp – including Matt Miazga, Alec Kann and Nick Hagglund (among others), according to the captain – are mindful of ensuring that the group is connected in their pursuit of success. Functions like team dinners, outings and movie nights are all on the docket for the 29 players in Clearwater to help rekindle the camaraderie of 2023.
It's a long haul to the goals FCC sees themselves achieving in 2024. But an early start, both on and off the pitch, is an excellent way to begin the year for The Orange and Blue to help them reach those heights.