How Cincinnati went from MLS’ worst to Supporters’ Shield

There is a line of thinking in managerial circles that you’re not really a manager until your team has been thoroughly thumped. It’s the kind of experience that can be humbling for a coach, but also galvanizing. Put another way, it’s the ultimate test of how a manager keeps a group moving forward in tough circumstances.

For FC Cincinnati manager Pat Noonan, it took a mere 90 minutes for him to join that fraternity. On Feb. 26, 2022, FCC traveled to Austin FC for its season opener — Noonan’s first in charge — and got hammered, 5-0. In its previous three years of existence, Cincinnati had been on the business end of plenty of beatdowns — so many, in fact, that it had finished dead last in MLS each season, a feat not matched before or since. The season ahead looked like it would produce more of the same.

Twenty months later, when reminded of that night, Noonan said to ESPN, “We laugh about that.” He then corrected himself: “We laugh about that now.”

That’s because Noonan, GM Chris Albright, the players and the rest of the FCC organization have experienced a remarkable turnaround in 2023. After reaching the postseason for the first time in 2022, Cincinnati pushed on to claim the 2023 Supporters’ Shield with three games to spare.

“We’re as good as any team in this league,” Albright told ESPN. “Whether we’re able to replicate what we’ve done over the last eight months in a short sort of burst … could you have a bad night? Always, which is why I think Supporters’ Shield is so difficult, but I just don’t think we have any holes, frankly. I think we have the depth. I think we have the coaching. We have home field. The [playoff] format, you could argue its merits or not, I guess we’ll see, but we have a confident group.”

It’s the kind of form that has Cincinnati firmly among the favorites to win MLS Cup.

The search for identity

To get a sense of just how impressive their turnaround has been, you have to go back to the organization’s entry into MLS ahead of the 2019 season. Cincinnati was awarded an expansion team in May 2018, making a late sprint to the expansion finish line past the likes of Sacramento and Detroit, thanks in part to the will of team president, Jeff Berding.

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Then came the fateful decision to begin playing in the league in 2019, a full year ahead of two other expansion teams waiting to join, Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF. It gave the Cincinnati organization a mere 277 days to prepare for life in MLS, having spent the previous three seasons in the USL Championship.

The decision to enter MLS so quickly had consequences. The organization joined the league with what was essentially a USL-level infrastructure from the front office to the technical staff to the roster, and that was reflected by the results on the field.

Instead of learning from that expansion season, though, the mistakes were compounded. Cincy burned through a pair of GMs and three different head coaches. Berding was the common thread, but was criticized for meddling far too much on the technical side of the organization.

In 2021, one source with knowledge of FCC’s inner workings told ESPN that Berding had created “a burnout type of culture.” Berding responded by making no apologies for the fast pace in which the club joined MLS. Yet throughout those first three seasons, Cincinnati continued to struggle on the field.

“I probably had over 75 teammates over that [time],” defender Nick Hagglund said about his first three seasons in Cincinnati. “It was just in and out, in and out. There was no consistency. I feel like it was just a search for identity and culture from the get-go.”

Berding made many missteps at the helm, but he finally got one decision right, and it might even go down as the biggest in club history. In the waning days of the 2021 campaign, he hired Albright as GM.

Albright had previously worked as the technical director with the Philadelphia Union, a team famous for punching above its weight. He described the atmosphere around Cincinnati as “pretty gray” when he arrived; not a surprise given the amount of losing that took place. It didn’t take long for him to diagnose what was missing: an overall lack of MLS experience and know-how.

“We were just trying to kind of stop the bleeding a little bit,” he said about his early days in Cincinnati. “But frankly, we just didn’t have the talent or sort of internal infrastructure to do so. It felt a bit immature is the word that I used.

“I was traded four times in the league, played for a bunch of different teams. Every time you go somewhere, you’d go, ‘Oh, that’s the trainer that I had at D.C. United,’ and ‘I played with that dude at so-and-so.’ I came here and I was like, ‘I don’t know anyone.’ So it was just very unfamiliar, and just felt like it needed to be professionalized to an MLS kind of standard.”

Two months into his tenure, Albright hired Noonan, who had worked as an assistant coach to manager Jim Curtin in Philadelphia during Albright’s tenure in the front office. Noonan soon brought on a staff that was heavy in MLS experience, from two-time MLS Cup-winning manager Dominic Kinnear to former LAFC assistant Kenny Arena to former Houston Dynamo goalkeeper coach Paul Rogers.

The impact was immediate.

“Once the whole coaching staff was on board, everything changed,” forward Brandon Vázquez said. “I mean, the quality of training, the intensity, the expectations. The coaching staff came in and just flipped everything around. The culture around the training ground, just the small little details of being on time, and everybody taking care of themselves. The culture shifts just changed and everybody was accountable.

“It was just great to see it switch so fast because some of the players were the same. It was just a different environment of work, and it really pushed everybody to be better.”

Some of the fixes sound incredibly basic, but they added up. Buses would show up on time. There was logic to how things like travel and preseason should be organized. Then there were tougher issues to address, like what a “glue guy” in MLS looks like. Albright soon brought in players like defender Ray Gaddis, defender Alvas Powell and forward Dominique Badji. Not household names, mind you, but players with enough experience to help bolster a side looking to make strides in the league.

The existing talent level wasn’t bad, either. There was Vázquez, playmaker Luciano Acosta and winger Álvaro Barreal, all of whom were eager to put the past behind them.

“After being through those tough times, you don’t want to be in that position again,” Vázquez said. “So obviously we’re the first ones to be on board with everything and trying to get everybody to be on the same page as well. All the players that were there through the tough times, we were all in right away.”

‘I never liked being bulls—ted’

Noonan made his name as a player mostly with the New England Revolution of the 2000s. The Revs were one of those “nearly teams” in MLS, losing three straight MLS Cup finals, though he later won MLS Cups with the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy.

Back then, Noonan hated talking about himself almost as much as he loved scoring goals, 47 of them over the course of his career. He’s a bit more verbose now, although he retains a mostly no-nonsense approach. Concepts like clarity, honesty, respect and trust come up often and are at the core of how he interacts with his players.

“I never liked being bulls—ted as a player, as a person,” he said. “I want people to look me in the eye and be honest, even if it’s a tough message to deliver. So [the players] know that they’re going to get that from me. But I also think you could do these things in a respectful way, where regardless of how hard the conversation is, all parties can walk out of that conversation and be in a better [place]. Respect the fact that it came in an honest way. And then I think if you have those two things, and in the day-to-day, and that’s how you approach your work, then you’re going to build trust.”

It’s an approach that has resonated with the roster. Hagglund was a member of the Toronto FC side that claimed a domestic treble in 2017, so he knows what winning in MLS looks like. He shared his experiences over coffee with Albright just days into the new GM’s tenure, and Albright walked away from that meeting convinced that Hagglund was part of his plans. The veteran defender has equally been impressed by what Noonan has brought to the club.

“I think his honesty and transparency and expectations that he set as a leader for the club, I think that trickled down through everyone,” Hagglund said about Noonan. “I think guys really respected [that]. As a first-time head coach, I think getting the respect aspect is really important. And I think the moment he stepped through the door, he garnered our respect immediately.”

Noonan came into the Cincinnati job heavily influenced by his time in Philadelphia under Curtin, as well as his spell with the Galaxy under Bruce Arena — understandable given the success he witnessed in both places. He attacked the Cincy job with an open mind, though, realizing that every situation is different. He surmised early that the 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield that had worked so well in Philadelphia wasn’t the best way forward with FCC, opting instead for a 3-5-2 that played to the strengths of a creator like Acosta.

That flexibility translates into those moments when he figuratively gets punched in the face, like that night in Austin. Noonan recalled he had to face Berding and owner Carl Lindner III in the coaches locker room afterward, and said he tried to be objective in handling that particular moment. The xG goal battle was relatively even (2.38-1.71 against), hinting that the game was closer than the score indicated. There was no need to panic. There was no dressing down of the team; instead, he offered calm words of encouragement to individuals, telling them to keep their head up.

“If I can have the right message and the right tone and keep guys moving forward, then you can get past that, and work towards your next challenge,” he said.

FCC lost the next week to D.C. United in a 1-0 game they dominated, but then came a road victory against Orlando City that Cincinnati probably didn’t deserve to win. No matter: it meant the world to the team.

“That was a defining moment early on to get that first win,” Noonan said.

The ‘three-headed monster’ of recruitment

That FCC improved from last year’s playoff appearance to win the 2023 Supporters’ Shield is perhaps the most impressive aspect of their rise. In the parity-driven world of MLS, moving from the bottom to the playoff places is the easy part, but sustaining that momentum is where it gets difficult. While Hagglund and Vázquez both indicated they haven’t been surprised by FCC’s turnaround, both Noonan and Albright are more circumspect.

“I just think a lot of things came together,” Albright said. “The coaching’s really good. I think our environment’s really good, just as far as a place you want to come to work. And I think when you’re maximizing all those things and not missing on players — that’s a big one — you’re able to have success. But even that being said, this is still unexpected to be where we are right now.”

Not missing on players is at the core of why FCC have continued to improve. For the first three years of its existence, Cincinnati was an organization that whiffed on signings far more often than it hit. Now Albright has brought his Philly recruitment mojo with him, and the biggest impact has been on the defensive side of the ball. Center-back Matt Miazga and holding midfielder Obinna Nwobodo arrived midway through 2022. Nwobodo was teamed with Júnior Moreno, who arrived that year from a D.C. United team that Albright said “maybe didn’t do him a ton of favors.” They helped bolster a defense that went from conceding 74 goals in 2021 to 56 in 2022.

This year, defender Yerson Mosquera was brought in on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, and combined with a full campaign of Miazga and Nwobodo, FCC have conceded 37 goals with one game to play.

One of Albright’s bigger “signings” was convincing Kyle McCarthy to follow him from Philadelphia to be FCC’s director of soccer strategy, bringing with him considerable know-how of the transfer market. Hunter Freeman, a holdover from the dark years, stayed on as technical director.

“I would say we’re kind of the three-headed monster when it comes to the recruitment process,” Albright said. “And I think we took things that we did well in Philly, and I think put our own sort of spin on them and how we kind of filter players. But then ultimately, how do you convince them to sign? I mean, a lot of teams, with the availability of data, are looking at a lot of the same guys that are clearly talented. But how you kind of fit them together and how you convince them to come are still, I think, the hardest part.”

Albright added that Berding — the man with a reputation for meddling in player matters — has given him “complete autonomy.”

“I think we’re similarly wired in that we’re competitors,” Albright said of his relationship with Berding. “We had our sort of challenges early on a little bit, but nothing specific to a lack of autonomy. It’s just normal guys that want to win and figuring each other out, but he’s been nothing but supportive of everything we wanted to do. He’s been excellent that way.”

Albright even managed to turn the awkwardness of Brenner‘s stint with FCC and his subsequent transfer to Udinese — the forward was long itching for a move, and was supposed to stay through July 1, but he sat out much of April and May and all of June after picking up an ankle injury — into a positive, netting a seven-figure transfer fee.

When asked what it took to resolve that situation, Albright said, “Patience. Deep breaths.” He admitted that FCC had long since come to terms with the fact that they overpaid for Brenner to the tune of a $13 million transfer fee, and weren’t going to get that back.

“Look, talented players are tricky. Brenner’s a talented player, and he is young,” Albright said. “We inherited some mistrust in the organization about how maybe he perceived to be handled or not handled, or coddled or not coddled. So we were always kind of facing an uphill battle. And so the important part was to keep as much of that sort of quiet and manage it, get him to produce on the field. Ultimately that’s what Pat and the guys did an awesome job of.”

It also gave Cincinnati another chance to mine the transfer market. It landed Gabon forward Aaron Boupendza, who has contributed six goals in little more than 600 minutes of play.

Now the accolades are heading FCC’s way, and deservedly so. Acosta is in the running for MVP, Miazga will get votes for Defender of the Year, while Nwobodo could easily make an MLS Best XI. With the Shield in tow, MLS Cup is taking up the entire focus of players and staff.

“We have that mentality of a championship team,” said Vázquez, who was part of Atlanta United‘s MLS Cup-winning side in 2018. “I can see this being a season where we play all the way until December. I want to make history for this team. So that’s the only thing that’s on my mind.”

For Noonan & Co., the playoffs will be another chance to chuckle about that night in Austin, marveling at how far their team has come.

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