In just two years, Pat Noonan has led FC Cincinnati from last place in the Eastern Conference table to the 2023 Supporters' Shield and spot in the Conference finals.
Before Noonan, the Orange and Blue finished in the bottom of the East for three consecutive seasons from 2019-2021. The team struggled to capitalize on young talent, and build success. But since Since his appointment in late 2021, Noonan has allowed the supporters at TQL Stadium to dream.
A well-balanced squad
Any team in any sport that has championship aspirations must have at least solid players in most positions in their team, and Cincinnati are no exception to that. Having a squad full of quality players not only helps a team push for their ambitious goals, but also helps coaches like Noonan tremendously.
There's the obvious ones on the list like MLS MVP Lucho Acosta, who tallied 17 goals 14 assists during the regular season, and 2023 Defender of the Year Matt Miazga.
Up front, Brandon Vazquez and Aaron Boupendza have made Noonan's job a whole lot easier by combining for 17 goals and assist in 2023, with the latter joining midway through the campaign and making just six starts.
In the midfield, Junior Moreno, Yuya Kubo and Obinna Nwobodo have all played their part in some capcity this term, while the wingbacks have really stolen the show. Alvaro Barreal has been electric as a left-wing back once again this season, notching five goals and nine assists to match his career bests from 2022.
On the right-hand side, Santiago Arias and Alvas Powell have held down the fort in more defensive roles while Barreal gets involved with the attack. Then there's the heart of the team -- the defense -- that really makes this side tick.
Outside of the previously mentioned Miazga, Noonan has been able to consistently rely on the likes of Ian Murphy, Nick Hagglund (who recently underwent surgery to repair a hamstring tendon injury and will miss the rest of the postseason) and Yerson Mosquera, who's on loan at Cincinati from Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Shot-stopper Roman Celentano has also improved ten-fold, thanks to his tremendous save abilities and the excellent back-three in front of him.
Whoever the boss has called on to take up a position in his defense, they've answered. The defense, combined with the fluid midfield and explosive attack, has propelled Cincinnati to become one of the top teams in MLS and have made Noonan's job a whole lot easier by doing so.
A dominant defense
Across the regular season, Cincinnati were one of the best sides in keeping goals out of the net. For starters, the team allowed just 39 goals during the campaign which is good enough for fourth-best in MLS, joining eight other sides as the only teams to conceded under 40 goals in 2023.
On a more game-to-game basis, Noonan's defense were consistent in not letting teams score for fun against them. Cincinnati conceded more than two goals in a game just four times, but there is one game that stands out that isn't pretty for any defensive-minded coach to look at.
Back in April, Cincinnati fell 5-1 to St Louis CITY when they were without Acosta, the most goals conceded in a single game in 2023 by far for the Eastern Conference team. With the supporting facts above, that game was clearly an outlier and a one-off event as the five goals amount to 12.8% of their total 39 goals conceded over the regular season.
One thing is for sure: Should Cincinnati go on to win MLS Cup, their stellar backline and goalkeeper will have played just as much of a vital role as their midfield and attack.
A sustainable approach to games
Noonan's 3-4-2-1 system has all the components of a balanced, sustainable setup that allows Cincinnati to be secure on both ends of the field.
Having three solid center-backs in front of Celentano allows the team to play a little more freely knowing they have protection at the back, but with the added defender, Cincinnati haven't felt any negative effects on the offensive end.
The wing-backs bomb up on the outside of the midfield, looking to send in crosses or draw defenders out of position for Vazquez, Boupendza and Acosta to work their magic in front of goal. The midfield and the back-three work together to recover lost balls and recycle possession before sending it up to the front free and the wing-backs.
While the Orange and Blue were among MLS' best in terms of goals conceded, they were also able to stay with elite company in goals scored. Noonan's side scored 57 goals during the regular season, fifth-most in the league.
Being in the top five in both of those categories is music to Noonan's ears and illustrates just how dominant his team has been and how much they've improved upon since 2022. With a trip to MLS Cup final on the line coming up against Columbus Crew, Noonan's tactics and approach have Cincinnati in a formidable position to take home the domestic double.