With two-week break in rear view window, FC Cincinnati readies for weekend playoff matchup

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There's a funny thing about adages in that they are always old. There's never been a new adage, old wives’ tale, or saying. The point being, I don't know if this is an old piece of wisdom, but it is one someone gave me that I remember. 

"If you have time, use it." 

That is exactly what FC Cincinnati have done since their last playoff match. A penalty kick shootout at Red Bull Arena that had all the drama and intensity of a classic heavyweight title bout, but it was only the opening round of the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs for The Orange and Blue. 

Now, thanks to the new playoff format intersecting with the FIFA International Break, FC Cincinnati finally find themselves in a matchweek … 17 days after the last time they took the pitch. 

On the one hand, time may not be what the club wanted. A school of thought suggests playing quick and capitalizing on momentum is the preferred course of action. But they got something else; they got time. They got 21 days between matches, and like it or not, so did their Eastern Conference Semifinal opponent, Philadelphia Union, so utilizing that time became of the utmost importance in preparing for that match. 

If you have time, use it. 

In this case, that means late in the season, using that time to give key FC Cincinnati players time to recover, regenerate and be at their best for the season's most important game. Throughout the three weeks, FCC and their sports performance team have rotated players in and out of daily training to prepare them for the final week-long build. 

The first week, FCC rotated Álvaro Barreal and Luciano Acosta in and out of full-session training before returning to action the next week of the break. Alvas Powell rejoined full group sessions and drills after missing both matches of the Round One Best-of-3 series to open the playoffs. Brandon Vazquez took time to work individually in the second week before rejoining the full group on Tuesday, the first day of the four-day build to Saturday's match. 

By optimizing everyone's individual training schedule to align with their needs, The Orange and Blue have put themselves in a position to be at their best when the moment is required. 

“While it's less than ideal it really helped us for for guys working their way back from injuries because the reality is if we were to play the week following (the match at Red Bull Arena) we would have had a lot of guys who wouldn’t be able to go,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said. “Because we had this time we tried to make sure that with some of our guys, we were just more diligent and on the safer side.”

This late in the season, everyone has something nagging at them. That is the price you pay for playing deep into multiple tournaments in one calendar year under the current MLS structure. Across all competitions, Saturday's fixture will be the 45th of the season for FCC, the most in club history by a clear margin. Bumps and bruises will surely come along the way. Still, players also persevere through more challenging injuries in that span to play for their club. 

Being 'hurt' versus 'injured' is a fine line that players, coaches and trainers have to dance along when the games matter most at the worst of times. Still, the break has given them the chance to widen the margin and make those decisions and conversations easier to navigate.

"The group's been super professional about this," Vazquez said. "Everybody has been taking care of themselves as best as they can. 

"A couple of days off have been great for the players that have needed it. But at the same time, the training sessions that we've had have been intensive, the quality has been there, and the group's looking good."

“The first week was really just let's see who we have available and let's just work on some of our own ideas,” Noonan said. “But the reality is we've had so many guys that have needed extra recovery and with the guys that are away with international duty it's been hard to do too much you know tactically until these last couple days. I think we'll certainly have enough time with the people that are now joining training to be prepared (for Saturday).”

Physical fitness has not been the only thing FCC has been able to use their time with. Matt Miazga earning a second yellow card in PKs against RBNY means he will be unavailable for the semifinal match against Philly. 

"We need to prepare a scenario that doesn't involve (Miazga)," Noonan said after the win at Red Bull Arena. "Matt knows better. We shouldn't be missing him for the next round, it's as simple as that." 

There is very little FCC can do about replacing Miazga from a talent perspective, as Miazga was recently named the 2023 MLS Defender of the Year, and in games he has featured in, The Orange and Blue have conceded less than a goal a game on average. The added time allows the coaching staff time to prepare, inform and implement his replacement to specifically tailor their performance to Philadelphia Union and Philadelphia Union alone. 

Yerson Mosquera will no doubt play a role in such tactics. Still, he has also been away for the last week as he plays with his national team (Colombia) as they seek qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The attention on the group present at Mercy Health Training Center and on those who will be asked to fill in is thus undivided. 

This is where the time off and the time to make decisions go hand in hand. With Nick Hagglund out for the season after suffering a hamstring injury that required surgery to repair and Powell injured for Round One, the options for a replacement appeared very limited. But now, three weeks since the last match, Powell has returned to training in full and reentered the conversation for selection on matchday, a luxury that may not have been available had MLS scheduled matches differently. 

On the other side of that equation, Philadelphia has been granted the same amount of time to sort out its issues. After quickly dispatching the New England Revolution in two games, the Union is looking to find ways to account for the suspension of key wingback Kai Wagner, as well as hoping for the recovery of 2022 MLS Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes and the team's leading goalscorer Julián Carranza who both missed Game 2 against the Revolution with injuries. All reporting from Philadelphia indicates that the Union will have players available again, if it is the full compliment that is yet to be seen.

Time is a commodity, and FCC was given a surplus that was, by all accounts, unasked for. Players are split on how impactful the time off has been. Vazquez said it was "bittersweet," explaining, "It's a little bit of both. It's nice with the International break to get a couple of days off just to let those knocks heal a little bit better. But at the same time, we don't want to lose the momentum that we have." 

The sentiment is a common one, so it's a complicated question. But The Orange and Blue have been handed time, and they've tried to use it as best they can. With match week upon us, it's back to business as usual.