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FC Cincinnati Defense Stands Tall and Wins Fifth Straight, But Pat Noonan Feels There's Still Plenty to Learn While Celebrating Clean Sheet

May 16, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
FC Cincinnati News Release

A seventh minute finish from Kevin Kelsy was all that would appear on the scoreboard for the night. Luciano Acosta again flicked a perfect cross along the goal line over the head of the Atlanta United keeper where the newest member of The Orange and Blue waited for the ideal moment to charge in and head home the game's first goal and take the lead.

Deja vu.

The goal stood as the winner. 83 minutes of defense later, conceding just one shot on target and a paltry 0.5 xG to their opponents, FC Cincinnati emerged with three points, a clean sheet and their eighth one-goal win of the season. FC Cincinnati is 22-4 in regular season matches decided by one goal since the start of 2023 and showed off the earned poise from that experience for most of the night.

But there were moments of struggle. FC Cincinnati had opportunities to put the game away multiple times, and on the flip side, there were uncharacteristic moments of reckless play that gave prime opportunities for Atlanta to score an equalizer. The Orange and Blue floated passes clean across the goal line four times but could not reach a finishing touch to double the lead. The back line took heavy touches or sent errant passes directly to opponents multiple times that took heroics to deter punishment.

It wasn't a perfect game. Pat Noonan said it was a step back in his postgame interview with MLS Season Pass, unsure if it was an emotional let down or physical one playing on short rest, but it wasn't as crisp a performance from Saturday night in Columbus.

But that doesn't mean it's not a win worth celebrating.

"A lot of things were just a little bit off and that's why I think the game played out the way it did," Noonan said from the dais inside TQL Stadium for his postgame press conference. "But again, I wouldn't say 'negatives' but (there are) things we could have done better, and here we are with the guys keeping a clean sheet and winning the game."

"They deserve credit and to be proud of the fact that they're still walking off the field with a win tonight."

FC Cincinnati deployed another unique lineup Wednesday, starting Kelsy and fellow teenager Gerardo "Dado" Valenzuela at forward (in part due to a hip injury sustained by Corey Baird, making him unavailable) while flexing super-utility man Yuya Kubo to the right wingback position. FCC has earned enough results to almost make you forget the number of changes to the roster they've endured without missing a step. When factoring in how many different starting XIs and options off the bench they've been forced to utilize thanks to injury, match rotation, and continental competition, an argument can be raised that the players on the field have not yet even scratched the surface of developing the chemistry some other clubs have and use it to their advantage.

And yet, the winning persists.

FC Cincinnati have now won each of their last five, one short of a club record, and have rocketed back up the table to now leading MLS in points per match with 2.08 and are second in the Supporters' Shield race by one point but have a game in hand. Last season, when the club won the Shield on a roster far more entrenched in consistency and year-to-year stability, FCC nearly broke the league's single-season points record with an end-of-year tally of 2.03 points per game.

There is clearly an untapped upside still to be tapped. A cohesion that is missing. When Acosta flicked that pass for Kelsy to score, it clearly showed a development of a relationship, an appreciation for what one can do for the other and how to execute that. However, on the four other floaters across the goal line that went unfinished, a missed opportunity was all that was left.

"It just looked like maybe the timing of the runs in the box or rushing a few of those plays with the early cross," Noonan highlighted as places where the offensive build-up was out of sync. "I thought there were still some chances for us, but a lot of them were just in cases where we wanted to score too quickly, too often, or find Lucho (Acosta) too quickly. It just doesn't allow us to get into a rhythm in a game on a night like tonight."

"I think that's the biggest talking point for us, is how can we better control attacking moments so that the game doesn't become so difficult for us on the defensive side of the ball that we have to cover ground and we have to rely on 1v1 isolation moments."

Cohesion is building, and the links with consistency continue to flourish rapidly, with impressive results and impressive processes.

The goal may have given FC Cincinnati lead, but the defensive backbone won them the game. Matt Miazga, Miles Robinson, Ian Murphy, and now Roman Celentano, who is back in his post after an injury absence, continue to flourish. Even on the goal scored, Robinson triggered the action by not only intercepting a pass to win back possession but by driving forward, putting on an attempt and then sticking with the play when the initial shot was blocked.

Robinson, whose prowess in the box on set pieces is well known, stays to see out the play when Acosta picks up the rebound before he floats that assist. When the defenders on Acosta go to thwart the attempt, they don't run for Kelsy; they run at Robinson. But by the time the Atlanta United FC defenders realize they've made a mistake, they're picking the ball out of the back of the net.

Robinson, an MLS veteran and champion, only makes that interception, drive, shot and decoy action in the box because Robinson, Miazga and Murphy all spoke prior to the Columbus game about being brave; about making bold moves because each of them know that if they do those brave things, the other two are behind them ready to pull their weight.

But the defensive success is not just the center backs.

"The defensive side of the ball has been a strength of our team while we're about a third of the way through the season and had some good games with the ball and then on the attacking side, but also a lot of games where quality or decision-making has been inconsistent. I don't think we're in the position we're in if we don't defend the right way," Noonan said. "I will say it's not just the backline. I think the two in midfield, (Obinna Nwobodo) and (Pavel Bucha), when it was (Yuya Kubo) in there... We've had different players step in (on defense) and do a really good job in front of them and then our front three in a lot of ways are also helping us out defensively in understanding the importance of staying connected and moving with the game. I think that part is where this group is shown to be pretty strong through 13 games."

The solution to building in the same cohesion on offense is an evolving situation. Luciano Acosta earned his 50th assist for FC Cincinnati, becoming the first player in club history to reach that milestone, but each of his two most recent assists came on passes to a player who arrived at the club 20 days ago. The longest on-field relationship Acosta has with an attacking-minded player is with the player who has shifted from wingback to striker to the defensive midfielder, back to the striker, and now back to wingback, but on the other side of the field. The second longest relationship he has is with another 19-year-old homegrown player who made his second MLS start in this game.

"Obviously, tonight we did our job," Kelsy said from the locker room to the gathered press about developing relationships with new teammates. "In the days to come, we'll talk more and have more conversations, but all of our teammates and coaches are behind us, so we will work to get better.

"These things happen when you're new," Kelsy added on missed opportunities. "But I think it was good for tonight."

It was good. But what has made Pat Noonan the most winning coach in MLS since being hired by FC Cincinnati to start 2022, is that good isn't good enough. The intent is to be proud of a win and learn from it. There's nothing different about that in this case.

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