Overconfidence isn’t something FC Cincinnati has had to deal with much, if ever, during its four-plus years in Major League Soccer.
Three consecutive years of finishing bottom of the league made that an unlikely issue. Even when last season’s team forged a playoff-qualifying campaign, followed by its first MLS playoff win, there was a certain air of newness, mixed with a question of if it was all real rather than anything approaching entitlement in the collective psyche of players, coaches and fans.
Coming off the heels of a statement 1-0 victory over perennial MLS heavyweights Seattle last weekend, FCC defender Matt Miazga made a point of nipping any such overconfident thoughts in the bud, cautioning the team to keep its feet on the ground and avoid getting caught up in any early season hype.
Head Coach Pat Noonan made a similar set of comments (distributed by the club to media) that focused on how failing to follow up the win over Seattle in the coming weeks would detract from the meaningfulness of the big win. That process begins with Saturday evening’s road match at Chicago Fire.
“We talked about before the game — it was going to be important to have a good performance and win against a strong team, a strong opponent, and we were able to do that,” Noonan said. “But now if we want to show the character of the group, how do we prepare and step on the field and have a strong performance in Chicago? This doesn’t mean much if we can’t go and replicate a lot of the things that we saw tonight when we go on the road and play Chicago, so that’s the challenge is to not think we’re better than we are or we’ve accomplished anything just to continue to build on good early results. And so far, three performances that have improved each game.”
FCC fans at least should be quite pleased at this early stage of the MLS season. The strong start comes despite the fact the offensive machine has yet to really kick into gear for Noonan’s team. Brenner’s winning goal last weekend vs. Seattle is the only tally of the season for the vaunted front three that also includes Luciano Acosta and Brandon Vazquez. So, in that area of team performance, the best should still be to come.
Control of matches and defensive shape, on the other hand, appear to be noticeably improved from the 2022 version of the squad, which often had to resort to besting opponents via high-octane firepower. FCC Head coach Pat Noonan highlighted these strengths following the Seattle win.
“Defensively, whether playing at home or on the road, if it looks like that, we’re going to be tough to break down,” he said. “That’s three games where we’ve conceded (zero) goals out of the run of play and one on a set piece, so I’m very pleased with that. But also the understanding that when we do that well, it also leads to some really good transition moments. And it leads to us when the time is right just controlling tempo with how we passed. That part has improved the last two games. “
One threat to continuing with strong defensive performances is the red card suspension Nick Hagglund will have to serve following his late sending-off vs. Seattle. Ian Murphy and Alvas Powell are possibilities to deputize in central defense, while right back Santiago Arias is also back from injury, having been well-replaced by Ray Gaddis the past two matches.
Chicago drew its home opener vs. NYCFC 1-1 and lost last weekend 1-0 at Philadelphia. Due to a wave of injuries, the only Fire players to stay on the field for all 180 minutes this season are defenders Carlos Teran, Miguel Angel Navarro and Rafael Czichos. Midfielder Fabian Herbers has recorded the team’s only goal.
The team counts on former Liverpool and Bayern Munich forward Xherdan Shaqiri for its offensive firepower, with midfielder Gaston Gimenez and striker Kacper Przybytko also mainstays in Coach Ezra Hendrickson’s lineup. Herbers and league veteran Kei Kamara are unavailable Saturday following red cards in the Philadelphia match, while Shaqiri, Federico Navarro and Jairo Torres are doubts due to battling injuries.
The road match in The Windy City carries some extra promise for FCC, with the team having won three of four previous games in Chicago (more than against any other MLS opponent). The team also has the league’s longest unbeaten streak on the road for regular season games, dating back seven games to last July.
Noonan, Miazga and the rest of the team’s leadership will strive to leave that kind of thinking to pundits and fans, keeping the dressing room’s mindset on staying humble and driven.
“We just have to be really alert early on, because I think, in a lot of ways, we’re not sure what the starting group’s going to look like or the formation, Noonan said. “So we’ll have to try to put the focus more so on us in the lead up to this game, maybe a little bit more than we would in today’s training and tomorrow’s training with preparation for the next opponent, but it’s going to be tricky. And even though it’s only been two games, when you have a team that hasn’t gotten a result yet, they’re going to be pushing to win their first game. And so it’s going to be a difficult task. And our guys need to be prepared for that both mentally and physically.”