Just how good is this team?
That’s the question devout Cincinnati fans must be asking themselves now as the team continues to breathe rarified air in terms of the league table and historical performance this season. Saturday’s home match vs. Chicago Fire FC will provide the next proving ground on which to consider the query.
While national media are beginning to shower Pat Noonan and his players with accolades for their on-field accomplishments thus far, breaking down just what has been achieved yields both confirmation that the group is doing a lot of things right and interesting insight into how likely it is to continue.
Some of that national media attention hasn’t gotten past the rapid rise from three consecutive wooden spoons to a first-ever MLS playoff berth last season and now a strong Supporters Shield run. But even with the team having earned more points (36) than any team in the non-shootout era of MLA after 15 regular season matches, and an increased local buzz about the team as evidenced by another announced sellout for Saturday’s match vs. Chicago, the internal messaging priority of the team coaching staff is to not get ahead of itself.
“Everybody knows it, you know, everybody in the locker room knows it (that the team has started the season superbly). But when we go from game to game, it’s how can we, again, take on this challenge, our next opponent and in a way where that’s our sole focus, and if we can just think about one thing, and that’s trying to go out and have success and win a game, we can continue on this path,” Noonan said in comments distributed this week to the media. “But like I said, they’re aware of it, we don’t talk about it. But, you know, they see the standings every day when they walk out to training. So hopefully that for them is a good motivator just to try to stay on top.”
While MLS is fairly unique in the global soccer world in that playoffs determine its season champion, there are enough cautionary tales in recent North American sporting competitions to keep the team and its supporters on an even keel. The NHL’s Boston Bruins broke the record for most total points and tied the mark for most wins, only to crash out in the first round of the playoffs against the lowest seed in the conference. In 2001, the Seattle Mariners posted a staggering 116-46 regular season record to set a new standard for regular season excellence, but didn’t even make the World Series. The NFL’s New England Patriots famously recorded a 16-0 regular season and won a pair of playoff games, but lost in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
While the Orange & Blue show supporters every reason for excitement, it has to be remembered that there is far too much of the season remaining to count on anything accomplishment-wise. Even in the face of the good results, the team is somewhat short of anything justifying arrogance regarding the rest of the campaign.
With just one loss and 11 victories in 15 league matches (following a 3-1 win at New York City FC on Wednesday), the team continues to set the standard for performance this season in MLS. Neither of the team’s 25 goals scored nor 15 allowed lead league statistics or the resulting goal difference of +10. But 36 points do. This points to perhaps the primary feature among this season’s results: FCC has accumulated nine wins of the one-goal variety, including five by a 1-0 scoreline (and two more such results in U.S. Open Cup play).
Such a string of results wouldn’t point to offensive firepower, midfield domination or even defensive superiority, although the latter two areas are definitely strengths for this year’s version of the Orange & Blue. Instead, the team’s results point to a group that has bonded together and displays a collective “get it done” mentality during its matches, whatever the circumstances.
Games have come in short order of late, resulting predictably in some injuries and fatigue. The team also lost one of its starting strikers to a transfer, but the good results keep on coming. Noonan admitted to understanding how someone might be surprised at the team forging such a hot streak despite the schedule.
“In some ways, yes. It’s not easy when you have a congested schedule, and you’re rotating guys, and it’s two or three pieces that are constantly being changed,” Noonan said. “Whether it’s every other game, or two out of three games. That’s not easy for guys to step in, with that number of rotations, and continue to have success and win games. So I’m really impressed and pleased with the fact that we’ve been able to rotate and I think the level has still remained high and the confidence has still remained high for us to go and win a game. So I think the group’s in a good place, certainly with the competition on our roster and the way guys are challenging each other each day for positions and minutes.”
Chicago is on the outside looking in for the MLS Eastern Conference playoff race, with three wins, eight draws and four losses this season. The poor performance cost manager Ezra Hendrickson and Frank Klopas has taken over (again) on an interim basis. Standouts for the Fire include former Liverpool and Bayern Munich player Xherdan Shaqiri and MLS veteran goalscorer Kei Kamara, with midfielders Brian Gutierrez and Maren Haile-Selassie other leading lights for the visitors. The two teams drew 3-3 in Chicago on March 18.
Noonan said Thursday that his team is mostly healthy, with Sergio Santos a confirmed absence for the game. Nick Hagglund has a chance to return from injury and Yerson Mosquera seems to have dodged an injury after taking a penalty-earning kick in the leg on Wednesday.