FC Cincinnati booked a 2023 Open Cup Semifinal date with Inter Miami back on June 6th. Since then, the South Florida club has gone from easy beats to the toast of the soccer universe. Head coach Pat Noonan – three times an Open Cup winner as a player and the mastermind behind FC Cincy’s current surge to the top of the MLS standings – spoke to usopencup.com about his love for the Open Cup’s romance, the unique challenge that is Lionel Messi “still playing at a very high level” and being within striking distance of a first MLS-era trophy in his young Ohio club’s history.
What was your most challenging game in this year’s Open Cup so far?
Pat Noonan: The [New York] Red Bulls game [a 1-1 Round of 16 draw on the road that needed a shootout] was as challenging as we've faced. You only have so many healthy bodies and you don’t want to push guys too far. We had some injuries. And we had some guys we just didn't want to risk. So we pushed the limit with a few guys in that game and there was fatigue and the Red Bulls were better than us, plain and simple. The reason we were able to advance is because of the way we defended the box and our backline. And specifically because of Alec Kann [veteran goalkeeper and regular back-up] just coming up in a big way all the way and through to the shootout.
Milestone Moments. 👏— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) April 27, 2023
Congratulations to Joey, Stiven and Isaiah for making their first appearances for the Orange and Blue in last night's @opencup match. And to Quimi for his first goal with #FCCincy. pic.twitter.com/9olk30syyt
Then it’s on to the Quarters and you can start to see the outline of a trophy through the clutter…
PN: I think we benefited from a call, you know, an offside call to get us the momentum in the Quarterfinal [at home against second-division Cinderellas the Pittsburgh Riverhounds]. You need those breaks sometimes. It certainly hasn't been easy, but we’ve found ways in difficult situations, and when not performing well, to just survive and advance. We utilized our entire roster throughout the tournament and I think because we've had stronger depth, we were able to get to this point where we now face Miami in the Semifinals.
This Semifinal against Inter Miami comes fast on the heels of a big rivalry game [a 0-3 loss on the road against Columbus Crew]. The timing isn’t ideal…
PN: There'll be rotation. I think you won't see the same starting XI in both games. That speaks to how it's been throughout this tournament. We've relied on about 15 or 16 guys through and I don't think the level’s dropped. We'll have a very strong group with hopefully as fresh legs as possible to step on the field in that game against Miami.
It's a new Inter Miami than you would have faced a few months ago with the arrival of Lionel Messi and Friends. What are your thoughts on this new reality?
PN: It's obviously great for our league. Probably the best player that’s ever played the game. He's part of our league and it’s put more eyes on it. I think it's helped certainly with the attention, the casual fan and the casual set of eyes tuning in to see what our league's about. That's always a good thing. It might not attract everybody, but it's attracting more.
It's also made Inter Miami a much tougher opponent…
PN: They hadn't won in 11 league games prior to his arrival. Now they haven't lost a game [they were crowned Leagues Cup champions after a shootout Final win in Nashville]. There's a reason that the best player in the world, or one of the best players in the world, changes the dynamic from professionalism to the on-field quality and everything else.
What is it – specifically -- about that man Messi?
PN: He just makes players around him better. You see guys like [Miami’s Robert] Taylor, all of a sudden a lot of these guys play with a different level of confidence and you're seeing the best version of them. And it’s not just Messi. Add the quality of [Sergio] Busquets and [Jordi] Alba. And [former Atlanta United coach] Tata Martino – so now you have a coach with experience who's won things not only internationally but specifically in our league.
How do you deal with Messi and Miami from a tactical or motivational sense?
PN: I think it's a great opportunity. You know, obviously, we've seen that nobody's been able to knock them off [Inter Miami won seven straight games in the Leagues Cup and Messi scored ten goals]. It'll be a tough test. There are people out there with opinions about ‘do your man mark Busquets and cut off service?’ Okay but now other players are free and they can hurt you. Everybody's trying to find solutions to stop a really good team and nobody's been able to do it. The reality is, in terms of Messi, not many have been able to do that at the highest level of this game for the last two decades. For us to think we’re just going to have the answer, it's silly. He's still playing at a very high level and fresh off a World Cup title.
It's a challenge for your squad – big names like USMNT players Brandon Vazquez and Matt Miazga and league MVP candidate Lucho Acosta…
PN: A Cup Semifinal against one of the top players in the world -- this is the kind of thing you work towards. You try to position yourself to play in games that matter and where there's attention on you as the individual player and on us as a team and a club. It’s what you want.
You’ll be at home. How important have the fans been in the last two rounds, and generally?
PN: They've carried us in so many ways. Of course you want to go and be dominant and score a bunch of goals and get the fans in it from the opening minute. But that hasn't always been the case. But man, they've been there for us. They've been there all year long in our game-day environment. Our fans have been so instrumental in the entire year. But certainly with the Cup run -- and we only hope it will get better for the Semifinal.
Trophies matter. Coaches say it all the time. How important is it to go from being a strong side, one competing for trophies, to one that’s putting them in the cabinet?
PN: That’s what separates you as a club. Titles. It’s always been my goal. The message of our group is to try to win trophies. And this was dating back to last year [when the club reached the MLS playoffs for the first time], but a lot of things needed to happen for us to get to the position of being the team and the club that competes for trophies. We're in that spot now -- a year and a half later. I'm thrilled with that.
Can you feel that the Open Cup means something special to fans and folks here in Cincinnati?
PN: There's some nostalgia here with FCC and the history they've had in this tournament [FC Cincinnati – as a second-division USL Championship club – reached the 2017 Semifinal]. I'm sure they would love the opportunity to be in that championship game and hoist that trophy. So there’s history with our club in this. I like that our club has a history in the competition where it means something, where we know on Wednesday when whoever comes to town, we're going to have a real environment. And now it's just going to be taken to a whole other level.
You won your share of Open Cups as a player. Is there a moment or run that stands out for you?
PN: I love the competition. Winning the trophy in 2007 with the New England Revolution stands out for me. It's all about being a part of championship teams. And our New England team had lost in 2005 and 2006 in the finals [MLS Cup]. So the Open Cup title came in 2007, before losing a third MLS Cup final later that year. But our Open Cup championship, it was important. It was a great moment to be able to be on the field and help contribute because, I'd been on the field for the losses and wasn't able to contribute. It was important to have an impact in a championship game and to win a trophy with that particular group, because we had a very talented team and a team that had real good chemistry. We have something to look back on and say: we won that.
Making memories with y'all. pic.twitter.com/mWavWybkVm— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) August 16, 2023
And those other two Open Cup titles that came in Seattle toward the end of your career…
PN: Those were great memories in Seattle as well -- with that fan base and the support and playing those games at Starfire [the team’s intimate training facility in Tukwila, Washington where they play early round Open Cup games]. At that time in my career, those were my games [Open Cup] because you usually have rotation and I was on the outside of that starting XI looking in. So I got some good experiences in those games at Starfire where we had real environments – like 5000, 6000 fans. It felt like a real Cup competition in a club where the U.S. Open Cup mattered a lot. And to Sigi Schmid [the late great Sounders and LA Galaxy coach] it really did matter.
How do you get the message across that no one is guaranteed trophies or finals in a career?
PN: These players have been messaging it throughout the competition. When Alec Kann speaks in our locker-room, everybody listens. He said prior to several Open Cup games that he's been around teams where opportunities like this don't always come about. Where you don't have a chance to compete for a trophy – let alone multiple trophies. And he’s right, you have to recognize that and not let the chances slip through your hands. You have to find ways to be ready for the moment.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.