Medunjanin content with supporting role in FC Cincinnati’s turnaround

Haris Medunjanin knew his playing time would be more limited in returning to FC Cincinnati for a third season, but he is content with the role. File fhoto by Gene Peters.

Toward the end of last season, midfielder Haris Medunjanin was sounding less and less like he would be returning to FC Cincinnati. His contract was expiring, he didn’t have a club option for 2022 and the only thing he was really looking ahead to was the offseason with his family. Then approaching his current age of 37-years-old, Medunjanin wasn’t sure FCC would even want him to return.

Conversations with general manager Chris Albright and new coach Pat Noonan – both former Union employees whom knew him well from his three years in Philadelphia – convinced him things would be different with FCC this year, and he signed a new one-year deal to return for a third season.

Now Medunjanin is content filling a much-altered role within the team.

Medunjanin, whose playing time began decreasing last year, has played in 10 of 11 league games but averaging just 17.1 minutes per game with one start. He’s contributing however he can, and meanwhile FCC seems to be turning a corner with three straight wins in MLS play going into Saturday’s match at Chicago Fire FC. He’s happy to play even a small part in that.

“Pat (Noonan) knows the league, the whole technical staff know the league,” Medunjanin said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so I knew when they came here that it would be different, and they’re showing it and I think if we all stick together and play with each other and everybody knows their role in the team — because now you have a first 11 who is playing and then you have substitution guys who need to know their role when they need to be called upon and to be there. Like that, you build a team. It’s not about the 11 players, it’s about the 20-25 players that we have and every time when you get an opportunity you need to show yourself and you need to be there for the first 11 who are playing right now against Chicago, you need to be there to support and hopefully get your chance and we are managing that very well right now and hopefully we can continue to do that.”

Despite the late-match substitutions, Medunjanin still is providing meaningful contributions. He started both U.S. Open Cup games and sent a great ball into the box for Alvaro Barreal to finish for an early lead Wednesday before FCC conceded five unanswered goals to fall 5-1 to New England in a fourth-round match.

Medunjanin also was lively in his lone league start of the season, April 30 at Toronto, helping FCC to its first of back-to-back wins against the Reds before a third consecutive victory was added May 7 at Minnesota. He owns an 87 percent passing rate and 19 recoveries in 177 minutes, which although a small sample size is on pace with Junior Moreno’s per-90 recovery numbers.

FCC is getting from Medunjanin what Noonan thought he could still provide in a supporting role.

“He’s maybe at the latter stages of his career, but I think you can see from his performances, when he’s on the field, his quality with the ball is something that we need in moments where we need to connect the right passes, we need to find ways to play forward and through pressure, he has that quality and composure,” Noonan said. “But he also was a very smart player, he reads the games in ways where he can press effectively. I go back to our time in Philly, and there was always talk of what he couldn’t do, as far as recovery, or speed. But he was, I think, our top player in terms of ball recovery, as a central midfielder that understands how to press forward. And so he’s very important for our group and understanding how to do that successfully. So all of these things are why he’s here. I think you’re still seeing that he can contribute in very meaningful ways.”

Medunjanin first entered the league with the Philadelphia Union in 2017 and was there for three seasons, the final two with Noonan on staff as an assistant. He led the Union with 408 loose ball recoveries in 2019 and had one goal and 10 assists that season, but Philadelphia did not extend his contract, and FCC selected him in the waiver draft. Albright, hired as Cincinnati’s general manager in October, was the Union’s technical director during Medunjanin’s stint there.

His first year in Cincinnati in 2020, Medunjanin was still a regular starter and providing a solid contribution in his distribution and leadership. Last year, the Bosnian midfielder played in 29 of 34 games but made just 18 starts. He’s spoken in the past about nearing retirement and the potential of getting into coaching but was adamant he had at least a year left in him, even if it was just closing out games or providing a mentorship to younger players.

FCC found value in what he could still provide and gave him that opportunity.

“After the season finished, I spoke with Chris and I also spoke with Pat and they wanted me to stay here,” Medunjanin said. “I wanted also to stay because they came and I know my role right now. I don’t even have to play, you know, it’s more to help the young guys and you know whenever the coach needs me I do my best to give him whatever I got and to keep this experience. Sometimes on the field especially in the end of the game, we need to manage to keep the ball a little bit more and close out the game so sometimes you get called on, sometimes not, but I know my role and that’s the important thing.”

“For me, it’s good,” he added. “I’m 37 years old right now. I know that I cannot play every minute and for me, it’s good to come in 15-20 minutes, when the tempo slows down at the end and when we can keep the ball a little bit more because sometimes when you play away you are defending more. … When you play away, it’s very difficult, and you know that you’re gonna be under pressure all the time, so, I sometimes joke about with the coach, ‘Home games I would rather play than away games because home games, you can play against anybody, you’re more on the ball.’ But, you know, I’m satisfied with my role right now. It’s not about me, it’s about the team, and I’m good with it, if it’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes, for me, that’s enough.”

In bringing Medunjanin back, Albright and Noonan also had another player familiar with the system they were trying to bring over from Philadelphia, joining former Union defenders Ray Gaddis and Alvas Powell on the roster. That would make his leadership skills especially valuable in implementing a new style and getting other returning players on board.

Noonan said previous working experience, for him and Albright, helped in the decision to bring Medunjanin back on a new deal this year.

“There’s not many players that I’ve worked with, if any, that are a better professional than Haris,” Noonan said. “So as a starting point, how he conducts himself, it’s an example to his teammates, especially to younger kids. But on top of that, how he pushes others in training, despite maybe not being in the starting 11 every game. That’s what being a good pro and a good teammate looks like. And so we knew we were gonna get that out of Haris by bringing him back, but on top of that, he’s a very good player.”

Medunjanin, who has more than 450 appearances in the top divisions of the United States, the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey and Israel, as well as the UEFA Champions League, said he tries to help the younger players by showing them how to train hard and be professional.

In general, he notices too often players just coming in to get their training done and then think that’s it for the day. He says they need to learn to arrive early or stay late to get extra work in and by the time they leave the facility, they should be tired. Then they will feel prepared.

That’s still a work in progress with FCC, and Medunjanin said it showed Wednesday when a lineup full of young backups got an opportunity to show themselves and broke down in the loss to New England.

“You need to work on yourself, and then when you get your opportunity, like (Wednesday), then you see some of the young guys, they’re tired, but that’s the thing, you need to always be prepared,” Medunjanin said. “You never know when you’re gonna get called up. And when you get your chance to take it, you never know when another chance is gonna come, so hopefully they can see that and hopefully they do that, do their best because they have quality, but it’s not only about quality. You need to work a lot. You need to listen to the older guys. It cannot be always like you know everything.”

“…But, they are good guys. They have quality and now it’s up to them, like to show the coach that they want to be part of the team.”

FCC will be looking to get back on track Saturday at Chicago, hoping to pick up where it left off in league play. The Fire started out 2-0-3, but hasn’t won since March, going 0-4-2 since then, including three straight losses while getting outscored 9-2.

In total, Chicago has scored just seven goals – half what FCC has tallied – but Mexican winger Jairo Torres, who recently arrived from Atlas FC, could make his debut Saturday and help with that deficiency. Noonan said the Fire have been impacted by Kasper Przybyłko’s absence, as he remains out with a back injury, but they still have players to watch.

The Orange and Blue are ending a stretch of five games in 15 days and looking to finish strong before finally getting a normal week with just one game.

“Because of the fact that we have such a quick turnaround, we need to make sure that we have the right mindset and confidence going into Chicago,” Noonan said. “When we talked two weeks ago, with the five games 15 days, in the challenges of this stretch, quick recovery and how we take care of ourselves and just being available. We lost some bodies during this two-week period, which stretched some guys physically, as far as match playing and minutes played.

“… But the message was, also, we’ve won three out of four in this stretch, and we have a chance to go to Chicago and continue our strong league play and improve our standing. So, it’s not a moment to be down—it’s, let’s use this as a little bit of motivation and make sure that we have the right response so that it doesn’t carry over into another poor result, because we’ve been doing some good things. And that’s helped us in league play, and now we need to have the right focus and turnaround to go step on the field against Chicago and have a good performance.”

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