At this juncture of the past three campaigns, from 2019-21, FC Cincinnati were already looking forward to the offseason.
Three straight bottom-of-the-league finishes will do that, amid several head coaching changes, front-office turnover and mishmashed rosters that saw the Orange & Blue struggle as an expansion club onwards.
But this is a new era, and through Week 32, FC Cincinnati will end up in sixth place in the Eastern Conference table following a 2-1 win at Real Salt Lake Saturday night. Head coach Pat Noonan, the architect of this dramatic turnaround alongside general manager Chris Albright, feels a whole new approach is found.
“That's part of the challenge, you know, changing the narrative of what would have happened, or what could have happened in the past,” Noonan said, with his team on track for a first-ever Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth. “This is about our group continuing to find ways to win meaningful games.
“And tonight, was another example of I think a group that senses and tastes the opportunity, and they closed out the game in a way where you can tell things are different. So, I'm very pleased with their approach and their confidence and finding ways to win.”
Cincy’s victory was powered by a brace from Brenner, giving the Brazilian striker five goals in the club’s last two games. The club-record signing is just two goals back of Brandon Vazquez (16) for the team lead.
Rookie goalkeeper Roman Celentano also posted a season-high seven saves, tying the mark he set nearly two weeks ago in a 1-1 draw at New York City FC. That includes a penalty-kick denial in first-half stoppage time that would have given RSL a 2-1 halftime lead.
Noonan’s team has dropped 25 points from a winning position this year, the second-highest mark in MLS. That partially helps explain why their 12 draws are the second-most in MLS, but Cincy dug deep at America First Field to earn back-to-back wins against Western Conference opponents.
“It wasn't perfect, but I think in previous moments late in the game, maybe the confidence wasn't there to connect the right passes to get us out of pressure and choices to get us into space and then move our lines,” Noonan said. “That was better tonight.
“And you can see a group that I think has been in the situation enough times now where they're finding more confidence in being able to connect the pass and not just kicking the ball off the field or knowing when to kick the ball off the field just to be able to get our defensive organization and still be able to put pressure on the ball higher up the field.”
FC Cincinnati have three games to go, traveling to a do-or-die Seattle Sounders FC side on Sept. 27 amid the international break. Then they close the year by hosting Chicago Fire FC (Oct. 1) and visiting D.C. United (Oct. 9), two of the East's bottom-tier teams.
With a playoff berth on the horizon, Cincy’s unbeaten run now stands at 10 games (4W-0L-6D). They've lost once since late May, too.
“We found the goal and we found a way to see out the game in a big way,” Noonan said. “So excellent performance and a big, big win for our group."