Anyone remember those cheesy one-word motivational posters? I have no idea if these totems of my 1990s and 2000s upbringing remain as prevalent now as 20-plus years ago, when these framed platitudes could be found in the office of a high school sports coach or the hallway of a pediatrician’s practice.
For whatever reason, corny framed stock pictures entered my mind last week when I thought about how FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan would spin his motivational yarn after a two-loss week. And it wasn’t just any two-loss week, mind you, but a worryingly lackluster showing in Hell Is Real followed by a backbreaking loss in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal round to Lionel Messi and Inter Miami.
Against Miami, the Orange and Blue were victims of another MLS Messi moment, with the Argentine sumptuously lofting his second assist of the evening to Leonardo Campana in the seventh of eight minutes of stoppage time to push the tilt to extra time. Cincinnati was eventually downed in penalty kicks, a bitterly painful outcome since the lads had submitted a performance worthy of being the first team to defeat Messi’s Pink Steamroller.
To twist the knife in further, because Houston beat Real Salt Lake in the other U.S. Cup semifinal, FC Cincinnati would have hosted the tournament final. Such sorrowful setbacks can linger in teams of all ages; professional athletes are not immune to sad vibes. Thus I was curious about Noonan’s ability to percolate his team’s spirit leading up to last Saturday’s league match vs. struggling New York City FC.
“You gotta dig deep in moments like this,” he said prior to Saturday. “It’s two losses, but it’s two important losses … how we come out of this is up to us.”
The gaffer received the response he desired. Aaron Boupendza smartly headed Cincinnati ahead in the sixth minute and the hosts never looked back, prevailing 3-0 to avoid losing back-to-back league matches for the first time all season. Combined with New England’s loss to Montreal, FCC increased its lead in the East to 11 points with just nine games remaining.
“You can either go down and feel sorry for yourself or pick yourself up, look yourself in the face and go on,” said Nick Hagglund.
After being the lone Cincinnati player to miss in the penalty round vs. Miami, Hagglund had perhaps the most to gain against NYCFC. The veteran center back responded with one of his best matches of 2023, failing to put a foot wrong defensively and scoring the match’s third goal.
Lucho Acsota (two assists) was his typical brilliant self. Junior Moreno delivered one of his top showings of the season in midfield and also scored the team’s second goal. Bret Halsey started for Alvaro Barreal at left wing back and showed well in giving FC Cincinnati’s other star playmaker a breather.
FC Cincinnati (54 points) still have much to play for in the nine remaining matches. New England’s single-season points record (73 in 2021) is in reach. The club owns a 10-point advantage in the Supporters’ Shield race over St. Louis, a critical development since the Shield holder gets homefield advantage throughout the postseason. Cincinnati is unbeaten in 13 home MLS tilts (12 victories, 1 draw).
A formidable offensive opponent awaits tonight in Atlanta. The Five Stripes, powered by Thiago Almada, one of the league’s top creatives, have scored 48 league goals in 2023, second-most in MLS. Almada leads the league in both assists and key passes and wreaked havoc in a 4-0 home win vs. Nashville over the weekend, tallying a goal and two assists.
Playing for the fourth time in 11 days, FC Cincinnati would clinch a playoff berth with a victory and could even secure a postseason spot with a draw. There’s no rest for the weary, either. Saturday brings a home match against Orlando, who currently sit third in the East and has reached the postseason in three straight seasons.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.