May 27, 2024

It could have been — maybe should have been — a train wreck.

Pat Noonan had never been a head coach at any level when he was asked to take over a woeful, dysfunctional FC Cincinnati team that had never finished anywhere but last in the MLS standings. The franchise needed a miracle worker, and it hired an apprentice.

Turns out Noonan was a little of both, though, because if his resumé was lacking, it was hardly thin.

He had been an assistant and player under three of the most successful managers in American soccer history, having worked with Bruce Arena with the Galaxy and the U.S. national team and with Jim Curtin in Philadelphia.

In Columbus and Seattle, he played under Sigi Schmid, the second-winningest coach in league history. Just once in 17 seasons had he played or coached for a losing team in MLS.

Noonan had never known losing, Cincinnati had never won. Something was going to change.

Less than two seasons into his new job, it has. Not only has Noonan avoided a train wreck in Cincinnati, but he has also put the team on the right track — reaching the postseason for the first time last season, then running away with the Supporters’ Shield this season.

Heading into the regular-season finale Sunday with Atlanta, Noonan’s team has a chance at finishing with the third-best point total in league history while becoming the sixth team in the modern era to win 21 games. Cincinnati won 14 games combined in its first three MLS seasons.

Noonan feigns surprise at the turnabout while crediting others for his team’s accomplishments.

“It would be false for me to say I expected us to be in the position we’re in,” he said. “Being on a job a little over a year and half, your ego tells you you’re going to have success. You get the right people, you get the right players, you use your experiences in the league and you’re going to figure out how to win.”

It was general manager Chris Albright who jump-started the turnaround, joining the franchise 10 weeks before Noonan and making 24 personnel moves in his first 10 months. Among the players he added were U.S. international Matt Miazga and former Premier League defender Yerson Mosquera, who have helped transform the worst defense in MLS — Cincinnati allowed more than two goals a game, a league record, through its first three seasons — into one of the best.

Albright was rewarded with a long-term contract extension last week.

FC Cincinnati coach Pat Noonan, right, speaks with defender Nick Hagglund.

FC Cincinnati coach Pat Noonan, right, speaks with defender Nick Hagglund during a match against Vancouver in July 2022.

(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

“He has an idea, he has an approach. He’s very good at understanding how he wants his team to play.”

— Dominic Kinnear, FC Cincinnati assistant coach, on Pat Noonan

Next, Noonan convinced Kenny Arena and Dominic Kinnear to join his staff as assistants. Noonan had long histories with Arena and Albright, having served on the same coaching staff as Arena with the Galaxy and the national team and playing for the U.S. alongside Albright, a former Galaxy defender who was the technical director when Noonan was an assistant in Philadelphia.

“What was important early on was having somebody that I knew, worked with and trusted and really respected,” Noonan said of his holistic hiring procedure, one in which he said he focused on “the tactical, the philosophical and the human being.”

Add Kinnear, at 56 the most experienced member of the staff, and all four have been winners, combining for nine MLS Cups, six Supporter’s Shields and three U.S. Open Cup titles. The way they continued that success in Cincinnati — humbly and by relying on one another — should become a blueprint for every other club in the league.

“That’s obviously been a huge part of our success, our staff being able to work well together,” said Arena, 42, who spent four seasons coaching under Bob Bradley at LAFC after coaching under his father with the Galaxy and USMNT. “Every day I worry that I might not win, which helps motivate me to do my job. Every game, every day I worry about not having success.

“I don’t like people that think they’re the smartest person in the room. I don’t like people who boast.”

That chemistry and the culture it has created didn’t just remedy a toxic situation in Cincinnati, it also made the team the best in the league this season.

“When you boil it down, players want to play for and win for Pat and Dom Kinnear and Kenny Arena and Chris Albright,” said Pat Brennan, who has covered the team for the Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati.com since its USL debut in 2015. “They’ve fostered probably the healthiest environment I’ve ever seen in high-level sports. Guys get rewarded for things like development and commitment to the club.

“It’s easy to want to win for the people that placed value on those attributes. Especially for the players that saw what it was like before.”

One of those players is Brandon Vázquez, who struggled under the previous coaching staff but scored 18 times last season under the new one, earning a call-up to the national team. This winter, after returning from his first appearance for the U.S., he gifted his kit to Kinnear to thank him for the extra work the coach had put in.

It was a fitting tribute since nobody embodies the staff’s selfless spirit better than Kinnear, who won two MLS Cups and 170 games as a head coach but is content to work as an assistant under Noonan, 13 years his junior.

“He’s a great delegator of his staff,” Kinnear said. “Everybody knows what they need to do for him, but everybody knows that he’s the man in charge. He has an idea, he has an approach. He’s very good at understanding how he wants his team to play.”

Whether this year’s Supporter’s Shield proves to be the first of many prizes for Cincinnati or the high point of Noonan’s tenure remains to be seen. The MLS salary structure is built to encourage parity, which makes it easy to finish first once, but extremely difficult to do it again.

“The foundation is good. The only thing with longevity is just, can the team stay together?” said Kinnear, the only manager other than Bruce Arena to win consecutive MLS Cups. “But it’s not a flash in the pan because flash in the pan means one season. Last year was not a mistake.

“Who knows how we’ll go from here. Anything can happen in the playoffs. But I don’t think a lot of teams want to come to our place and play us.”

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

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