When Matt Miazga is asked about the keys to FC Cincinnati’s success in 2023, he starts with the kind of answers you might expect. The 28-year-old defender talks about the balance of the squad constructed by general manager Chris Albright, head coach Pat Noonan and their colleagues, the strong mentality and fighting spirit cultivated by the group and its leaders.

The long list of contributors he reels off soon runs in somewhat less predictable directions, though.

“Everybody takes their role on really well, whether that's preparing for set pieces, preparing videos, preparing the scouts, everybody in the backroom staff, with our physios, our strength and conditioning coaches, putting together programs and keeping us honest and having a structure,” Miazga told MLSsoccer.com as his side began their Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs quest.

“Even our chefs at the training ground, the way they prepare meals, and the investments and budgets that we have for the club to be good in these departments is very helpful for us off the pitch, to succeed on the pitch.”

By this point in his career, the New Jersey native has seen his share of the soccer universe and then some, enough to consider it mandatory to give some flowers to such often-overlooked members of the extended team.

“For sure, I have to,” he explained, “because those people don't get a lot of recognition. And I think that's important in a club. You know, I've been in a lot of different clubs all over the world – all over Europe, I should say. Different cultures, different styles, different people, different-type players, and all these types of things play a part.

“All those things, it's important that it comes together, because that is very helpful for success.”

Miazga boupendza

Finding his voice

Miazga doesn’t speak much of his own impact on FCC’s impressive march to the Supporters’ Shield. His status as a leading contender for the MLS Defender of the Year award underlines that reality in bold, though, as do some startling statistics compiled by Cincy beat writer Laurel Pfahler of Queen City Press.

When Miazga arrived at FCC in August of last year and took up his usual spot at the center of their three-man back line, the Orange & Blue’s goals-against per-game average dropped from 1.83 to 1.2. The trend continued this season, with the Garys leaking 1.83 goals per game when he’s not on the field and 0.9 when he is, contributing to a 15W-1L-4D record with Miazga and a 2W-2L-2D mark without him.

“Matt is a vocal leader, you feel his presence on the field,” Noonan told The Athletic last month. “We needed someone in the center of our back line who could organize and make plays.”

It’s all a marked contrast to his recent past, yet also a product of it. As a member of Chelsea FC’s infamous “loan army,” Miazga spent six years out on loan to five other clubs in five different countries, from his initial signing in 2016 at the tender of age of 20 right up until his move to Cincy last summer.

While it never quite worked out for him at the London giants – and who knows if he was ever really given a chance at the chaos-prone club in the first place – his travels gave him a pretty useful footballing education, even if it sentenced him to a nomadic, chronically unsettled existence.

“I think it’s normal, when you start playing at a young age, that there's always going to be ups and downs,” he said. “But also, you're going to continue growing and continue learning. Every year, every day you learn something new, something different. So I was able to, over the years in Europe, kind of hone my craft.

“The good thing about going out on a bunch of loans is that I was able to meet a lot of different changing rooms with a lot of different people, teammates, personas, traditions, cultures of football, because the culture in Spain is different than the culture in England, for example, or Belgium, so I was able to put it all together then and lead, and be a leader in my own way.”

Matt Miazga clap hands

Homegrown origins

As well-traveled as he’s become, it’s equally striking how many of Miazga’s core lessons were gleaned at his first professional destination: the hometown club where he rose through the academy ranks to earn a homegrown contract, then a spot in the starting XI as a teenager – all back when “Play Your Kids” was more of a vision than a real thing happening every week across MLS as it does today.

That personal history adds extra meaning to Cincinnati’s Round One Best-of-3 matchup with that same club, the New York Red Bulls, particularly as he makes a Jersey homecoming this weekend for the series’ second leg on Saturday night in Harrison (7 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

“I broke out really early. I think I was 18, 19 years old when I first started getting consistent MLS minutes. And at the time, it was very rare for a young defender, or a young player, in MLS,” Miazga said. “The time I was at during my professional journey was really important, because I was a young player, but I had a lot of old-school teammates, like the Thierry Henrys of the world and Tim Cahills, the [Jamison] Olaves, Peguy Luyindulas.

“It was a different game back in the day, and a different kind of culture and tradition in locker rooms and stuff. So I was able to experience all that, which kind of helped me develop who I am and my mentality and kind of also the way I look at things from a changing-room perspective, locker-room perspective. But I also had really good guys, when I started playing consistently, like Dax \[McCarty\] and Sacha [Kljestan] and Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Damien Perrinelle, Luis Robles, who kind of took me under their wings.”

Most RBNY supporters remember that era fondly, highlighted by Supporters’ Shield captures in 2013 and 2015. Miazga was the cocky kid in the group, blossoming ahead of schedule, headed for great things but always ready to mix it up. Like the time he trolled the Red Bulls’ crosstown rivals New York City FC with a baseball-themed goal celebration in a big Hudson River Derby win at Yankee Stadium.

Miazga scream

"The Jersey in me"

Miazga’s most famous such moment came in a US men’s national team kit, though, in a ‘friendly’ vs. Mexico in Nashville on Sept. 11, 2018.

Diego Lainez had been skinning his USMNT mates left and right, but when Miazga got the better of the skillful winger in a 65th-minute duel, the tall defender faced up to a defiant Lainez and mocked his height in a cutting gesture that went viral. Whether you give Miazga credit for turning the psychological tide or not, the Yanks would go on to win the match 1-0 via a late winner from Tyler Adams.

“It was just a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. For me it's like, whatever happens on the field stays on the field. In the moment, there was a bit of trash talk. That kind of situation occurred and it was what it was,” Miazga recalled. “Obviously it did bring a lot of media attention, just because I think USA-Mexico is a big rivalry … You have respect for people no matter what, off the pitch as well, because he's obviously a good player. I think I played against him a few times afterwards as well, and we shook hands and embraced.”

Perhaps it’s a sign of Miazga’s maturation that he’s less likely to spark the smack nowadays, though he doesn’t hesitate to finish it if goaded by an opponent.

“When I was younger, I would kind of – it’s fine to say I’d go looking for it on the field, just because of, I don’t know, I guess the Jersey in me,” he said with a chuckle. “Now, if someone starts with me, then I'll kind of go back to make sure I let them hear me out a little bit, if that makes sense.

“In England, it happened all the time, every single game, literally every player on the pitch had something to say or shout. Like, that was the English culture in the Championship at the time, and when I was in England with Chelsea for that half a year. That was just normal, you’d just talk smack to get in someone's head, you know what I mean? … A bunch of grown men playing a professional sport with egos, and you're trying to get in each other's heads.”

Matt Miazga - CIN - orange jersey

Finally offered belief and stability – including a long-term contract that makes him one of the highest-paid center backs in the league according to MLS Players Association documents – Miazga has thrived while playing within himself. His defensive dominance anchored Cincinnati’s run to the Shield, and he’ll be pivotal to their hopes of an MLS Cup run, one which would unfold entirely at TQL Stadium once this weekend’s match is done.

Like others in Cincy, Miazga didn’t expect it to fall into place this quickly, but he believes in what they’ve built.

“I just tried to enjoy every moment and focus on one moment at a time, one training session at a time, one day at a time, one game at a time,” he said. “As that progressed throughout this year, I realized OK, there's something special brewing with this team and we're a strong team, and obviously ever since, I think since May, we got hold of first place and we never looked back.

“Once it was the middle of the season, I realized, alright, this is what we came here for, this is part of the reason why I wanted to come back to MLS, and Cincinnati gave me the opportunities to win again in this league.”

Miazga close up