FC Cincinnati isn't pretending that the games are getting bigger and bigger, and the chance at history is getting closer and closer.
There are two schools of thought in approaching big games like the one won on Saturday: You can ignore the stakes, or you can embrace them. Each has its merits; ignoring the stakes and making it like 'any other game' suggests a calmness that points towards a similar performance to what we have seen before. For the 2023 Supporters Shield-winning side, that standard is pretty good.
But the viewpoint FC Cincinnati is taking aligns more with the second school of thought, which leans into the gravity of the moment and embraces it for what it is … the biggest game of the season and perhaps the club's history.
"I hope we embrace it," FCC head coach and 2023 Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year Winner Pat Noonan said. "Another playoff game in front of our home fans, now you add in the rivalry. I'm looking forward to the preparation phase of this. … It's two good teams that are going to compete in a really good way and it'll be an entertaining game."
After having three weeks to prepare for the Eastern Conference Semifinal against Philadelphia Union, the standard one-week break between matches leading into the Eastern Conference Final is a quick turnaround. But the quick turnaround to build up to Saturday's match isn't impacting the preparation.
The groundwork done from January to this moment has given FCC players and coaches the trust in each other to feel confident about the match. The Orange and Blue have played 45 matches in 48 calendar weeks and have spent nearly every day for a year working together to prepare for this moment and beyond.
"We're well into the season, you know, at the very end here," Noonan said. "Guys know each other. They understand their roles and despite not having certain pieces in the lead up to the game, really a lot of the information and specifics is the two days prior when you're talking about the video portion and the on-field work where we tend to get into a lot more of the specifics. This week was no different."
Unity in the locker room has been a running theme from FC Cincinnati. Togetherness is the phrase often heard from players and coaches about how The Orange and Blue overcame challenging stretches this season. With the season on the line once again on the biggest stage possible, that unity remains the backbone going into the Eastern Conference Final.
"I think everyone's excited," Brandon Vazquez said. "The intensity is there. It's going to be a battle so everyone's ready for exactly that."
"We're at a stage now where the guys understand what's at stake," Noonan said. "They know each other, we know each other. We know what we're about."
The Fortress Difference
The right to play at home in the playoffs will once again be a well earned right Saturday night thanks to FC Cincinnati’s near record-setting home mark of 19-2-5 across all competitions this season. By playing in front of The Orange and Blue faithful, FCC can improve on an already dominant performance this season.
“We want to be back at (TQL Stadium), we want to be back in front of our fans to be able to play such a big game. It's exciting,” Vazquez said. “It just brings confidence to everybody.”
The protection at home also helps when you consider their opponent, Columbus Crew, has struggled when leaving Ohio’s capital regardless of opponent. On the road, the Crew earned a 4-8-5 with a goal differential of negative eight in 19 fixtures. Similarly, the Crew struggled to score at the same pace despite owning the league's most explosive offense. In MLS play, Columbus scored a league high 67 times with only 26 coming away from Lower.com Field. The interesting exception to these struggles is that they were only served a clean sheet twice.
In the playoffs, the Crew have twice gone on the road, defeating Orlando City SC 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Exploria Stadium (aided by a second half red card to Orlando and needed extra time to win the game), but lost to Atlanta United FC in Game 2 of Round One.
Full Group Ready and Willing
FC Cincinnati enter Saturday’s match with as full a bill of health as they could ask given the circumstances. After missing starters for the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Noonan has assured that The Orange and Blue were ready for action.
“As of now, much better,” Noonan said Thursday. “We had some guys who needed to be away from the group due to illness and extra recovery for some guys, so outside of (Nick Hagglund) … everybody is available, which is certainly promising.”
An illness made its way through the team that temporarily forced some players to alter their participation in training in the lead up to the match, but by Friday, the full allotment of players were active and available.
FC Cincinnati weathered the storm of missing four starters against Philadelphia Union. While they won’t get everyone back, reinforcements are on the way. Santiago Arias, who was available for selection last Saturday but went unused, is back and fully engaged in team training this week. Obinna Nwobodo, who was kept out of the previous matchday roster, has also rejoined the group.
Noonan indicated last Saturday that the decision to roster Nwobodo or not was very close, but ultimately they decided to move with caution to ensure his future availability. Arias, who had limited full-time training after picking up a knock in training and withdrawing from participation with the Colombian National Team, was available to be used if needed, but now with a full week under his belt, is prepared for selection.