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Know Thy Enemy: Revolution vs The Pat Noonan Cincinnati Revival Edition

The three time defending MLS Wooden Spoon FC Cincy team is in the midst of their best ever season thanks to a couple of former Revolution players.

FC Cincinnati v New England Revolution

There will be a number of familiar faces on the opponent’s sideline today when FC Cincinnati comes to Gillette Stadium to face the New England Revolution tonight at 730pm. No, we’re not just talking about Cincy assistant coach Kenny Arena either.

When looking back at the Revolution teams of old, the number of players associated with the Steve Nicol era that have continued their careers in soccer is pretty high. Many of these players are intertwined with Bruce Arena from either the LA Galaxy or the USMNT as both players and coaches and the list is pretty staggering.

Taylor Twellman, Nicol, and the late Paul Mariner are regulars on ESPN’s soccer coverage. Charlie Davies, Brian Dunseth and other former players can be found in the broadcast booth as well for league games. Matt Reis spent time as a keepers coach, Shalrie Joseph is an assistant with the Revs, and Steve Ralston had lengthy spells with both Houston and San Jose and should still be coaching somewhere in my opinion. But it’s a couple of former Revs leading the way for FC Cincinnati that are perhaps doing one of the league’s biggest turnarounds right now.

Rookie GM Chris Albright (a former Revs defender who made 27 appearances from 2008-09) and rookie head coach Pat Noonan (former Revs striker from 2003-07 who scored 37 goals in 119 regular season games) currently have Cincy in 6th place on 24 points, level on points with the Revs but with more wins as a tiebreaker.

To put this accomplishment into perspective, and it is a significant accomplishment for just half a season in comparison, Cincy in their previous three seasons have never totaled above 24 points, for the entire year. Yes, there was a pandemic in the 2020 season, but even at their best Cincy has averaged a measly 0.70 PPG over a full year yet currently sit at double that number in Albright and Noonan’s first year.

Albright in his first full year as GM after spending a few seasons in the Union front office brought in a familiar face in Noonan who was an assistant in Philadelphia at the same time. The familiarity and partnership appears to be working for the former MLS and US stalwarts and the on field results are impressive and far outpace the contingent of former international coaches brought in to lead the expansion side over the years.

But it is still a work in progress. Cincy has a legitimate MVP candidate in Luciano Acsota, a young DP in Brenner who has scored four goals in his last two games including a midweek hat trick against NYCFC, and youngster Brandon Vazquez acquired via trade in their expansion season all playing very well this year. The defense however is still a sore spot and playing on tired legs on turf today won’t help much.

For the Revs, their defense has played well with Henry Kessler, Brandon Bye, and Matt Polster who are still on the injury list along with midfielder Sebastian Lletget. Tommy McNamara will miss the game with a yellow card accumulation suspension. Djordje Petrovic is unbeaten in his four MLS starts in goal and Dylan Borrero has shown flashes of his ability as he builds chemistry with his teammates in the attack. It’s hard to imagine either team putting out a full first choice lineup this evening.

Overall, the meetings between these two teams have been fairly one-sided, with the Revs winning five of the six matchups over the last three and a half seasons. This Cincinnati side however is likely going to be one of the most in-form teams the Revs have played but squad rotation and rest might factor into Cincy’s lineup decisions today.

For more information on Cincinnati, we reached out to Laurel Pfahler of Queen City Press for her insight on the job Noonan has done this year, that epic 4-4 draw with NYCFC midweek, and Luciano Acosta just being good at soccer.

As always, you can check out my answers to Laurel’s questions over on their site as well as this earlier feature on Kenny Arena, and take a listen to Sam Minton with Geoff Tebbetts of Cincy Soccer Talk as well.

TBM: With 24 points already in the halfway mark of the 2022 season, FC Cincinnati has tied their best ever season total. What has former Revs player and now Cincy head coach Pat Noonan done to succeed on the field where so many have failed previously for the team?

LP: The thing that stands out with Noonan is his willingness to be flexible. He came in with the idea of running a 4-4-2 diamond midfield, or at least that was what new general manager Chris Albright had envisioned, but when it became clear FC Cincinnati doesn’t have the roster to be effective in that formation, he immediately changed course. He went into the season saying he wasn’t going to be tied to a formation and he’s had to get creative at times to manage a roster very much in flux. The team has a lot of wingers that are not needed in the ideal system they want to play, but Noonan has found ways to get the most out of some of those guys like Alvaro Barreal and Calvin Harris, at least before the international break. In the first season for FCC, it didn’t seem like there was much of a clear plan. The next two years, it seemed the plan was too stringent and key pieces to make it successful were missing. Albright deserves credit as well, bringing in some solid depth and experience, then working to add the more “special” pieces, and he will continue to turn over that roster as he can. Noonan connects well with the players, he’s got an all-star staff of experienced assistants that also know the league and they are all very active and involved at training sessions, and they are bringing a winning mentality to the group that never existed before.

TBM: I don’t know if it’s possible to explain that midweek game you just played, but which is the real FC Cincy team: the one that went up 3-0 against NYCFC and battled back for a 4-4 tie or the team that gave up four goals in quick succession around halftime of that same game?

LP: The team that gave up four goals in quick succession is the old FCC. The character shown in fighting back to get a point and almost winning the game at the end is more indicative of the new FC Cincinnati. We’ve seen it time and time again this season where the team has fought back to get something out of a game maybe they deserved to lose, and I think that just goes back to the confidence Noonan has instilled in the players and the change in the mentality. The goals conceded is reflective of where the weaknesses still lie in the team. FCC returned three center backs that contributed to 74 goals against last year, and it doesn’t help that Geoff Cameron isn’t at the level he was last year, as his body just seems to be wearing down at age 36 and after suffering several back fractures in the penultimate game of 2021. I think those center backs can all still provide value but the group can be improved upon this summer.

TBM: There’s no question, just talk about how good Luciano Acosta is at soccer (otherwise I’ll never hear the end of it from my site photographer).

LP: Acosta is the most impressive player I’ve seen wearing the FC Cincinnati badge, and that’s another player Noonan has helped unlock this year. I asked Noonan what he saw from Acosta when he watched film in the offseason as he was preparing for his first year a coach, and he said the main thing he wanted to do differently was make sure Acosta was moving forward into the attack more and not getting sucked deep into the midfield and on defense as much. Noonan instructed players to get Acosta into positions where he was facing the goal, instead of forcing him to come back on the ball with his back to the goal, and that has helped put him in front of goal and in more dangerous spots more often. Acosta also had a friend advise him to study how Joe Burrow turned around the Bengals in his second season through his leadership as much as abilities as a quarterback. Acosta read articles about Burrow’s leadership style and started focusing on better communication. He gives team speeches in English now and his demeanor on the field is more like what you would want from a captain. I think that shift also has helped him better trust his teammates this year. He still takes on three defenders at times and somehow manages to make something special happen, but he’s not always forcing it like he seemed to last year. A lot of that had to do with his frustrations with how the season was going and feeling like he needed to just do everything himself to try to win games. He’s definitely worthy of the MVP candidate mentions he’s been getting.

Projected lineup:

Roman Celentano, GK

John Nelson, LB / Ian Murphy, CB / Tyler Blackett, CB / Nick Hagglund, CB / Alvas Powell, RB

Haris Medunjanin, M / Yuya Kubo, M / Luciano Acosta, M

Brenner, F / Brandon Vazquez, F

Injured: Junior Moreno (leg), Dom Badji (leg)

Unavailable: Calvin Harris (out of country for green card), Obinna Nwobodo (yellow card suspension), Quimi Ordonez (international duty)

FCC has been playing Geoff Cameron, Blackett and Hagglund together at CB the last three games, and this one seems like a good time to give Cameron a break and use rookie Ian Murphy, especially considering the turf field. Ray Gaddis has been starting at right wingback but has been up and down at times and usually there is some rotation with Powell. Alvaro Barreal is the one I’m not sure what they will do with. He played left wingback to give Nelson a break last game but the defense is better with Nelson. Barreal could play in a midfield role but it would have to be in a 4-3-1-2 they use sometimes and the defense probably needs the 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 cover. Haris Medunjanin also might need a break but there just aren’t defensive midfield options right now. If he is in there they need three center backs for sure.

Score prediction: New England 3-2 — FCC’s midfield is a bit of a concern with Junior Moreno and Obinna Nwobodo out. They have been key, especially Nwobodo, to the team’s success this season.