FC Cincinnati couldn’t have asked for much more to go their way over the past week as the team pursues its first-ever Major League Soccer playoff berth.
From the team’s spectacular 6-0 win over San Jose last Saturday at home, to key losses suffered by fellow Eastern Conference playoff berth chasers such as New England, Miami, Orlando, Toronto and Columbus, the chips have fallen kindly for Pat Noonan’s team as the season winds down.
Now it’s time once again for the Orange and Blue, who are riding a 9-game unbeaten string, to do themselves a favor by picking up key (and perhaps unexpected) points, this time on the road vs. Real Salt Lake.
Saturday’s matchup pits FCC against a team in a similar position as RSL occupies the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference (FCC is 6th in the East). RSL, who have the 4th-best record in the league at home, are coming off a heavy 3-0 loss to Austin FC on Wednesday and are three points ahead of the LA Galaxy for that coveted playoff slot.
Noonan said he expects RSL to bounce back strongly for Saturday’s match, noting head coach Pablo Mastroeni will convey to this squad the urgency it will need with just three matches remaining in the regular season. The fact remains that the match is vital for both sides.
“If there’s one person that knows how to get his group ready for a game, it’s him. And so it’ll be a very tough game,” Noonan said in comments distributed by the club to members of the media. “And we know that with where they’re at, with where we’re at, it will have a playoff feel, as it should. And what’s the execution look like? Because effort should not even be talked about on either side.”
Noonan added that the club has played itself into a position to control its own destiny in regard to playoff qualification, and he wants to keep it that way.
“Right now, we’re a playoff team. It’s our job to stay there,” Noonan said. “Nothing else matters if we win games, so that’s as clear as I can be to the group is nobody else matters because they’re chasing us. If the roles were reversed, then it’s talking about winning the next game but also we need help. It’s in our own hands. It’s been in our own hands for weeks now and all we need to focus on is going and trying to get a result in Salt Lake, and I think if we do that, discussions about other games, we don’t need to have them.
“This is the best time of the year,” he continued. “You feel the weather change a little bit. You’re in the mix. You’re playing in important games with a chance to be a playoff team. It’s the best part of the year.”
RSL are led offensively by forward combo Jefferson Savarino and Sergio Cordova, who have scored a combined 14 goals. Other regulars in the starting lineup for Mastroeni include goalkeeper Zac MacMath (tied for the league lead in shutouts with 10), defenders Justen Glad, Andrew Brody, Marcelo Silva and Aaron Herrera plus midfielders Pablo Ruiz and Maikel Chang.
FCC will look to continue its strong form off of its highest offensive output of the season last week. Noonan credits Alvaro Barreal’s emergence as a left back (following the early-season injury to Ronald Matarrita) as a key factor in the development of a potent attack for the Orange and Blue.
“What I would say about Álvaro is, when you look back at that Charlotte game, when he was asked to step into a new role on the road in a difficult atmosphere, to where we are now, the kid’s grown a lot,” Noonan said. “And not just with the ball defensively, I think his understanding of the position has continued to improve. His 1v1 defending has been really strong. And he’s shown that he can make plays too out of that position and in how he arrives into the box. And so I give him a lot of credit for where he is now and where we were to begin the season. And I think for players, it’s a good example of being open to new ideas and new positions and being able to work past the initial struggle that you might see. He’s been very valuable for us.”
Match 31: FC Cincinnati (10-12-8) at Real Salt Lake (11-10-10)
9:30 p.m. Saturday, September 17, 2022, America First Field; Sandy, Utah.
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