FC Cincinnati entered its away match last weekend with a bit of history with professional soccer in Charlotte, though not with Major League Soccer’s latest franchise, Charlotte FC. During FC Cincinnati’s inaugural season, its first home match came against Charlotte Independence in April 2016. I attended the game, and three distinct memories stick out: It was freezing, the crowd of nearly 15,000 at Nippert Stadium was electric, and Sean Okoli scored the Orange and Blue’s first-ever home goal in spectacular fashion.
The Independence remains in the United Soccer League, unaffiliated with Charlotte FC. As for FC Cincinnati, Saturday was an opportunity to establish another historical marker: its first three-game winning streak in Major League Soccer and the club’s first three-match unbeaten run since last June. On paper, a draw or win appeared favorable for FC Cincinnati, but despite taking only three points from its first four matches Charlotte had overperformed its points total.
The MLS newbies played D.C. United evenly in its opener but fell 3-0 thanks to a penalty kick and two deflected shots. Two successive defeats by a single goal to L.A. Galaxy and Atlanta United—which scored on a penalty in the 96th minute—followed before Charlotte thumped New England, holders of last season’s Supporters Shield. Additional factors in Charlotte’s favor were its raucous home crowd, an environment similar to the atmosphere FC Cincinnati experienced in its 5-0 season-opening loss at Austin FC, and a presumed lack of squad rotation from the Orange and Blue.
And so the good vibrations from the past three weeks finally ended against Charlotte, as FC Cincinnati was felled for the third time in 2022, losing 2-0. The visitors were cut apart early, with solid, incisive passing but also poor defending and man-marking from FCC’s defense leading to the first of two goals from Designated Player Karol Swiderski in the sixth minute.
FC Cincinnati had a chance to equalize in the 32nd minute. Brandon Vazquez, who I spent last week covering in adulation, unsuccessfully tried to nutmeg Charlotte keeper Kristjian Kahlina on a one-on-one opportunity following a Charlotte turnover. After Swiderski bulleted home a brilliant free kick in the 56th minute, the match was essentially sealed. FCC couldn’t find its finishing touch in the final third on this day, epitomized by Vazquez’s miss and Brenner impressively skying an opportunity for a headed goal in the 91st minute.
A week after he delivered a goal and two assists, FC Cincinnati certainly missed the offensive prowess of left back/winger Ronald Matarrita, who was on international duty with Costa Rica. Unfortunately, he appeared to suffer a serious ankle injury in his national team’s first match, one that reportedly will require surgery. That’s a hammer blow to FC Cincinnati’s offensive creativity and to its already thin depth at left back/winger.
It’s early, but squad depth is becoming a bit of a concern. This was the fifth consecutive start to the season for six FC Cincinnati players, while two more have now appeared in all five matches. While it’s a bit early to worry about tired legs, eventually head coach Pat Noonan is going to have to rotate his side.
Midfielders Lucho Acosta, Yuya Kubo, and Junior Moreno are tasked with covering a ton of space—particularly Kubo and Moreno—while relying on 36-year-old Geoff Cameron to start every match at center back is a muscle injury waiting to happen. Forward Dominique Badji has already logged two more minutes (321) than he did in all of 2021. Veteran defender/winger Ray Gaddis’ return to the bench Saturday following an injury was a positive sign, while Brenner and midfielder Allan Cruz will surely begin to net starts. Presumed backup left back John Nelson, out with an injury all season, returned to full group training this week, a welcome sign for a team depending heavily on the 32-year-old Gaddis and right back/winger Alvas Powell, who has also surpassed his minutes played mark (321) from 2021.
With that mind, Monday’s decision to ship 22-year-old defender Gustavo Vallecilla to the Colorado Rapids appeared odd. Vallecilla has been out all season with injury, but he appeared in 25 games in 2021 after joining FC Cincinnati from Ecuadorian side SD Aucas. A team lacking depth trading what I came into the season thinking would be its third-choice center back was unusual at first glance, but not when you consider the return, as well as a few other factors.
In return for Vallecilla, FC Cincinnati picked up a boatload of General Allocation Money ($800,000 split between this year and next), which can be used to buy and/or trade for other players, buy down salaries, and other roster-building mechanisms. FCC also receives 10 percent of any future transfer fee for Valecilla and opens up a coveted international spot. Furthermore, Colorado is reportedly paying $450,000 of Vallecilla’s original transfer fee from Aucas. In summation, another tidy bit of business from General Manager Chris Albright, and the move itself forecasts that additions to the team are coming.
Brad Gough of Cincinnati Soccer Talk noted the trade of Vallecilla signals that Noonan is partial to his three current center backs (Cameron, Tyler Blackett, Nick Hagglund) as well as the depth provided by center backs on FC Cincinnati 2, perhaps most notably rookie Ian Murphy, who’s already appeared in two matches for FC Cincinnati.
This Saturday’s home match against CF Montreal, which didn’t play over the weekend, arrives before FC Cincinnati will enjoy its own bye weekend. With the upcoming break in mind—and perhaps new player arrivals in the works—expect Noonan to mostly stick to his preferred starting XI vs. Montreal (one point from four matches). It’s possible that Brenner nets his first start of the year and Gaddis returns in a starting wingback role.
Following the match, keep an eye out for player announcements to augment a team that’s off to a decent start but could tire quickly without reinforcements.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.