Pat Noonan’s Critical Role in FC Cincinnati’s Playoff Push

The rookie coach has turned the league’s most shameful outfit into a playoff threat. The next part may be even more challenging: pushing as many right buttons as he can to drag an imperfect roster to the postseason.

FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan was hired three days after the 2021 MLS Cup. When preseason training for the 2022 season began, Noonan’s psychological rebuilding of FCC was as critical as any tactical implementations or personnel changes.

This was a club with a shattered psyche, broken by back-to-back-to-back last-place league finishes. It set MLS record after MLS record for offensive and defensive ineptitude, falling victim to both blowout defeats and long losing streaks.

In this realm, Noonan has succeeded. The former Philadelphia assistant has successfully received buy-in from a handful of newcomers and a large group of returning players from the league’s most shameful outfit—and turned them into a playoff threat. With 11 matches remaining in the season, FC Cincinnati (29 points) sit in the seventh and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Orange and Blue have been competitive in nearly every league match, too, with 18 of 22 games ending in a tie or being decided by one goal.

The next part for Noonan may be even more challenging: pushing as many right buttons as he can to help drag an imperfect roster to the postseason. And after Saturday evening’s 4-4 draw at Inter Miami marked the fifth time in the past seven matches FC Cincinnati allowed at least two goals, the rookie skipper may be in search of defensive magic.

Saturday’s defensive woes began with Noonan getting his setup and/or tactics wrong with his 3-4-1-2 formation against Miami. The back line of Tyler Blackett, Geoff Cameron and Ian Murphy, and the midfield of Alvaro Barreal, Obinna Nwobodo, Junior Moreno, and Alvas Powell, were out of synch from the first kick of the match.

It appears Noonan didn’t instruct Blackett and Murphy to press wildly into the team’s attacking half in fruitless attempts to jam Miami counterattacks, or have the typically position-conscious Nwobodo and Moreno—making his first start in two months—embark on frequent ball-chasing adventures. Nonetheless, each Miami offensive progression up the field for the first 55 minutes of the game was a waltz into its attacking half without reproach.  

The result was a first-half hat trick for veritable FCC killer Gonzalo Higuain, who has been passed over as the team’s starting striker earlier this season. Cameron practically handed Higuain his first two goals, committing a foul on the edge of the 18-yard box that led to one of the best free-kick scores of the season.

Cameron then embarked on a one-man offsides trap to release Higuain behind the FC Cincinnati back line for the second goal. The third came off a very dubious, but very predictable, penalty decision against Cincinnati. Seven of Higuain’s 20 MLS goals have come against the Orange and Blue.

Luckily for Cameron, the team’s pair of star strikers brought their finishing boots. Brenner buried an airtight cross from Alvas Powell in the 28th minute, and then completed his brace with a calm corner-pocket finish just before half via a scrumptious pass from the finally free Lucho Acosta.

Miami’s 3-2 advantage lasted until the 81st minute, when Alvaro Barreal’s gritty solo run from the left wing led to a toe-poke goal from Vazquez. Stunningly, three points were on the table five minutes later when Barreal’s inch-perfect cross to a streaking Vazquez found the back of the net for Vazquez’s 13th goal of 2022.

And yet, Chris McVey’s 97th-minute rocket of an equalizer resulted in the seventh split in nine matches for Noonan’s bunch. In that time, they’ve allowed 17 goals. FC Cincinnati’s 42 goals allowed are second-worst in the East and the most yielded by any current East playoff side by six goals. Here’s the most damning stat: FCC has scored at least three goals in six matches this season—and won once!

Noonan managed to stem Miami’s offensive onslaught with a line change less than 10 minutes into the second half. Center back Nick Hagglund, left back John Nelson (to play center back) and right winger Ray Gaddis were inserted, and off came Cameron, Blackett and Powell, the latter of whom had one of his shakiest defensive matches of the season.

“We talked before the game about managing the conditions and I don’t think we did that particularly well tonight,” Noonan said after the match. “I thought if we had some more composure and patience with the ball and better decision making, we could have found our way into the attacking third and ways where we could be able to create chances, but also be able to defend higher up the field. But we just rushed too many plays tonight that just allowed the game to be way too open.

“And while it allowed us to create some chances and transition and with space, and found some goals, defensively, it was a tall task for the backline and for Roman [Celentano] to continually have to deal with pressure.”

The draw was a fair result for both sides given their shared taste for low discipline, lackluster marking and craterous transition defending. Defensive reinforcements may or may not be on the way before the transfer window closes tomorrow; Noonan and General Manager Chris Albright have been consistent in their public comments about yearning to add to the current team’s roster without compromising the future.

Darker defensive days may be coming. East-best Philadelphia visits Saturday, and the Union has been united in its desire to bludgeon anyone in its path lately. Philly has won five successive contests with these goal totals: 6, 1, 2, 2, 7. We’ll see what Noonan can do to keep his squad in the match.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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