A Winning Streak for FC Cincinnati?

FCC breaks through on the road against Chicago and Toronto for much-needed wins and is actually approaching playoff contention.

Two weeks ago, I detailed FC Cincinnati’s three upcoming matches over an eight-day span that included games against Chicago and Toronto, both barely above them in the Eastern Conference table. I said two wins in the three games would “immediately thrust FC Cincinnati back into the playoff conversation.”

Two weeks later, FCC sports a two-game winning streak and sits 11th in the East, three points back of the New York Red Bulls for the seventh and final East playoff spot and three positions above last place. Sure, the Orange and Blue haven’t traversed even one-third of their regular-season schedule, which stretches into the second week of November due to the COVID-delayed start to the campaign. But with a winning streak for the first time since topping Atlanta and New York Red Bulls 11 months ago at MLS Is Back and having bagged consecutive clean sheets for the first time since last September, Jaap Stam’s outfit has forward momentum for the first time in a year. And that could do wonders for FCC, which has so often been short on confidence since joining Major League Soccer in 2019.

A week ago, FC Cincinnati inched past Chicago 1-0 at Soldier Field, with Alvaro Barreal’s set-piece wonder strike in the 50th minute the difference in a game the visitors should have blown open early. FCC had six shots on goal within the match’s first 20 minutes and finished with 14 shots (nine on target) in the first half. Chicago goalkeeper Bobby Shuttlesworth stood on his head all game—he earned a bench position on MLS’s Team of the Week for his showing—but FC Cincinnati really should have been up two or three goals at half, with a free header from Geoff Cameron, Lucho Acosta’s one-on-one vs. Shuttlesworth, and Shuttlesworth deflecting a 12-yard laser from Brenner being the golden chances.

At the halftime whistle, there were a few FC Cincinnati players with heads hanging in disappointment after failing to crack the net and seeing Chicago record zero shots on target. And one would have thought Barreal’s goal—which broke a 234-minute scoreless streak—would have spurred FCC further forward. Instead, Chicago immediately made three substitutions and went on the front foot, and FC Cincinnati spent the rest of the game parking the bus and relying on good fortune to see out the victory. A handful of goalline chances were either blocked by FCC defenders or by goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, and a well-timed (but correct) VAR overturn prevented a stoppage-time Fire equalizer.

FC Cincinnati left for Orlando postgame and had just two full days of rest before facing Toronto, which entered on a five-match winless streak. This time around, FCC made the most of a golden early chance, with Allan Cruz half-forcing a turnover deep in Toronto territory and then slotting home a gorgeous pass from Isaac Atanga, who was making his third straight start on the left wing. FCC reverted to its second-half form from the Chicago game for the rest of the half and were lucky to not have Toronto tie it up.

In fairness to the players, Stam went with essentially the same starting XI for the third game in a row—left back Ronald Matarrita returned from injury to start vs. Chicago and Toronto. He chose not to rotate his side and banked on the three weeks of rest his team enjoyed over the recent international break being enough to counteract the congested fixture slate. Stam’s plan worked, but barely.

Acosta, who was named to the bench of last week’s MLS’s Team of the Week for his display in Chicago, put in another shift Saturday against Toronto, highlighted by a 68th minute golazo. The goal, set up by a terrific run by Yuya Kubo and a smart reverse pass by Brandon Vazquez, was the epitome of what FC Cincinnati have been missing over the past two years: a moment of magic from a gifted No. 10. Acosta shook former U.S. men’s national team stalwart Michael Bradley out of his boots and curled in a beauty of a strike to give FCC some breathing room. The elated smiles from Stam, his staff, and the rest of the bench told the whole story. That goal, in addition to his overall play, earned Acosta a place in the starting XI for this week’s Team of the Week.

FC Cincinnati finished with 10 shots (four on target), while Toronto notched three (one on target). And after entering the Chicago match having held a lead for just 60 minutes all season, FCC more than doubled that margin over its past two games, leading for a combined 136 vs. Chicago and Toronto. “The guys this week have done very well with how they’ve handled these two games, in, of course, getting the points, and scoring goals and not conceding, and also with the recovery after Chicago with the traveling that we had,” Stam said postgame Saturday.

The one melancholy note over the past week was FC Cincinnati bidding farewell to Jurgen Locadia, whose loan from English Premier League side Brighton expired today. General Manager Gerard Nijkamp admitted a few weeks ago that the club would not pick up Locadia’s purchase option, but didn’t rule out Brighton and FC Cincinnati coming to an alternative agreement. Another concord was not reached, and thus Locadia’s time in the Queen City is over.

The writing appeared to be on the wall from the outset this year, as Locadia failed to crack the starting XI early on, with Stam selecting rookie Calvin Harris over the Dutchman. Still, even after Harris was injured, Loca remained primarily a sub, starting just two of the team’s nine matches this year. The 21-year-old Atanga, who was acquired in late March, was even preferred to Locadia over the past three matches on the left wing after Harris’ injury.

In 1,727 minutes and 26 games with FC Cincinnati, Locadia registered zero assists and scored just two goals on 19 shots on target (this excludes the penalty kick Loca scored in MLS Is Back, as MLS does not officially recognize stats accumulated in that tournament). His stay in Cincinnati can’t be looked at as anything other than a failure given his previous prowess for finding the net in Europe combined with his penchant for blowing easy chances stateside.

And yet Locadia’s stay was also blotted by the pandemic and FC Cincinnati’s chaotic roster situation, with service to the big forward/winger seriously lacking in 2020. By the time Acosta arrived, the club’s braintrust had seemingly already made its decision on Loca, with Brenner’s expensive, high-profile transfer overshadowing Locadia this preseason and almost confirming that Nijkamp could be looking to reallocate the potential money spent on Loca’s purchase option—plus the Designated Player and international roster slots that would be vacant with Loca off the roster—toward the midfield and backline at some point this summer.

FC Cincinnati will be on the hunt for its fourth straight road victory Saturday night vs. Houston (14 points, sixth in the West). Stam will be forced to reshuffle his starting XI this weekend, with Cruz (in his best form since 2019) and Matarrita being recalled by Costa Rica for Gold Cup duty. Depending on Costa Rica’s success, both players could miss most of July, when FC Cincinnati will play six matches.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Off the pitch, he is the managing editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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