FCC meets Crew in Eastern Conference Final as Noonan deals with key lineup absences

Morale-crushing sense of loss or rocket fuel for an underdog scales the heights narrative?

Buildup to the latest edition of the Hell is Real Derby has been dominated this week by the news out of league headquarters that MLS Defender of the Year Matt Miazga will not be available (due to suspension) to FC Cincinnati for the rest of the postseason.

One reaction to the announcement, understandably, is that FCC will be too shorthanded to overcome their high-powered visitors from Columbus in Saturday’s Eastern Conference Final (or any prospective opponent from the Western Conference should they reach the MLS Cup Final). Conversely, the Orange & Blue have made a habit of rising above expectations during the reign of Pat Noonan over these past two seasons, This is still a team that finished dead last in MLS for three consecutive seasons prior to Noonan’s arrival, but in just two years has risen up the ranks to win the MLS Supporters’ Shield for compiling the best record in the league for the 2023 regular season.

For an example of FCC overcoming the absence of key players, we need only look back to the most recent match.

In last weekend’s 1-0 win over Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Semifinal, FCC was forced to compete without Miazga, star defensive midfielder Obinna Nwobodo and first-choice right-back Santiago Arias (although the Colombian was at least available on the bench). Defender Nick Hagglund had already been lost for the season due to injury. Being without this group of players presumably would have adversely affected the team’s defense, but the Orange & Blue still produced a clean sheet in their dramatic stoppage-time win.

Yerson Mosquera anchored the back line (and added the late winning goal for good measure), with Ian Murphy and Alvas Powell alongside at center back, and Ray Gaddis deputizing at right wingback, across from usual left-back starter Alvaro Barreal. Yuya Kubo started in midfield alongside Junior Moreno.

For this Saturday according to reports, Noonan will have major doubts about Nwobodo’s availability and the Nigerian is a major part of what FCC does in the buildup to attack as well as team defense.

Noonan, in comments distributed by the club to media, agrees that his team is ready to whatever changes are needed in the starting lineup for Saturday.

“I think we were already dealing with it, you know, internally and knowing that Matt wasn’t available for the last game,” Noonan said. “They’ve seen what it looks like for one week already and now it’s going to be the remainder. So we’ll continue to move forward in a strong way. And Matt’s been excellent out there in how he’s helped to lead the group, you know, just despite not being available.”

Columbus is led by Colombian forward Cucho Hernandez, scorer of 20 goals this season. Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris feature in a talented midfield. Wilfried Nancy’s Crew have six wins and three draws in their last 10 matches, including a 2-0 win over Orlando last weekend in the conference semifinal.

Noonan said his team will need to be in top form to get a result vs. Columbus.

“It’s not just their front line, which includes wing backs, you know, attacking midfielders, a very good No. 9. Their backline starts their attack, and they’re all comfortable on the ball, they all have the ability to play out of pressure,” he said. “You know, so that can open up the game if you don’t go to the ball in a good way, and if you’re not organized. So it’ll start with our first line of pressure in how we look to make them uncomfortable and find ways to win the ball and maintain possession at the right times to attack and transition at the right times. They’re a very strong attacking group. And that’s something that we’ve looked at, you know, the last couple of days and I also think they’re, while they get a lot of credit deservedly so for their attack, they’re a good defensive team in how they look to win the ball back. And so we need to be very good at being able to win balls, have the composure to connect passes and break pressure.”

Whatever the lineup permutations from Miazga’s suspension or injuries to other FCC starters and whatever the momentum Columbus is enjoying as they walk out for the match Saturday at TQL Stadium, this is the biggest match in FCC history and the best home support in MLS (talking about FCC) has yet another chance to show just how much it can impact a result.

What: MLS Eastern Conference Final, FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: TQL Stadium

TV: Apple TV MLS Season Pass

Radio: 700 WLW; SiriusXM Channel 157.

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