By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 14, 2022) US Soccer Players – If FC Cincinnati’s visit to Philadelphia to take on the Union in the Eastern Conference semifinals was a popcorn flick penned by a screenwriter at a big studio, the student-teacher trope would be central to the story. The match-up of the 5th-seed and the conference’s top team provides two different student-teacher dynamics. That’s former Union assistant and current Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan with mentor Jim Curtin and FCC general manager and former Union assistant technical director Chris Albright with Union sporting director Ernst Tanner.
FC Cincinnati will arrive in Chester after a dramatic 2-1 win at the Red Bulls last Saturday. The club’s first-ever playoff berth was reason enough to sing the praises of team architect Albright and the field boss Noonan. Following three straight last-place finishes, advancing in the playoffs felt like a small miracle. Albright and Noonan brought about that miracle.
Albright and Noonan are doing things a little differently in Cincinnati. For all the cues Noonan took from Curtin when he accepted the chance to build a winner working for Albright in Ohio, he’s gone his own way in setting up his team.
Some of that is due to the personnel. Albright’s signings have strengthened the squad in key areas, notably defensively. Noonan took over a team that needed to take advantage of the talents of central playmaker Luciano Acosta and a pair of strikers, Brandon Vazquez and Brenner. Albright and Noonan inherited all three, but it wasn’t until Noonan unveiled a 3-5-2 in 2022 and put them in optimal spots on the field that they thrived.
Albright’s highest profile moves were mid-season additions Obinna Nwobodo and Matt Miazga, players who made Cincinnati’s defense markedly better and allowed the front three to play with even more reckless abandon. But Albright’s less flashy acquisitions, many of them made in the winter ahead of the season, were critical.
He convinced former Union man Ray Gaddis to come out of retirement to add leadership to a group that needed to learn what it took to win in MLS. He brought in midfield workhorse Junior Moreno from DC United. He traded for Union forward Sergio Santos, who came off the bench to provide an attacking spark in the first-round win at Red Bull Arena.
High-level international scouting. An understanding of MLS culture. The knowledge of how to play the MLS market for players and allocation money. All of that helped Albright to provide his coach with a team capable of reaching the postseason, even if the general manager himself admits the team is ahead of schedule.
Noonan applied the pressing tactics used by the Union and leveraged his side’s ability to turn a turnover into a chance quickly. The lessons he learned in Chester served him well in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Curtin’s team nearly perfected the approach this season.
Philadelphia’s pressing game helped the Union lead the league in both goals scored and the fewest goals conceded in 2022. An explosion of goals in July sparked a record-breaking run of six-goal wins. The defense was so good that three of the club’s key defenders, goalkeeper Andre Blake, fullback Kai Wagner, and center back Jakob Glesnes, made the list of year-end award finalists at their positions.
Tanner, Curtin, and the Union certainly have no intention of watching Albright, Noonan, and FC Cincinnati pass them by this season. Philadelphia has unfinished business. Despite establishing itself as one of the league’s best-run clubs, the Union doesn’t yet have an MLS Cup title. Last year’s crushing disappointment in the Eastern Conference final felt unfair since the Union was missing 11 players due to a Covid outbreak in the team.
Philadelphia won’t be down 11 players on Thursday in Chester, but it will be without team captain Alejandro Bedoya, at least to start. The veteran midfielder is working his way back from a hip flexor strain that caused him to miss the final three games of the Philadelphia regular season.
FC Cincinnati made a statement back in August when it beat Philadelphia 3-1 at TQL Stadium. Even in a regular season game, the win over the Union felt like a big step. The connections between the two teams provided a narrative, and Cincinnati’s win was no fluke.
Moving that statement a month and a half ago to winning on the road in Chester will be a gargantuan test of Cincinnati’s progress. All it will take is doing what no team in MLS has done this year, winning in Chester. The Union was nearly perfect at home in 2022, posting 12 wins and five draws in 17 games.
Of course, if the quest wasn’t difficult, it wouldn’t convey the same sense of accomplishment. It takes going through the league’s best to reach the summit.
More From Jason Davis:
- Roman Celentano, Djordje Mihailovic, Paxton Pomykal, and John Tolkin are potential difference-makers in the MLS playoffs
- Are all playoff teams contenders in MLS?
- Minnesota vs Vancouver, Real Salt Lake vs Portland, and Orlando vs Columbus highlight Decision Day
- Considering all of the factors for Coach of the Year in MLS
Photo by Howard C Smith – ISIPhotos.com