Mercifully, FC Cincinnati’s 2021 campaign will culminate Sunday afternoon vs. Atlanta at TQL Stadium, ending a near-seventh month journey with precious few highlights and more than a few lowlights. Despite fielding the most talented roster in team history, FCC were worse in 2021 than in 2019 or in 2020. Even if the Orange and Blue snap their 11-match losing streak on Sunday, they will still finish with their lowest points per game average (0.59 with a loss, 0.62 with a draw, 0.68 with a win) than they did during the pandemic-ravaged 2020 season (0.70) and their first year in MLS (0.71). Without a doubt, FC Cincinnati has cemented itself as Major League Soccer’s worst-run, worst-performing outfit.
There are many questions to be asked of what will transpire over the offseason, but perhaps the most critical one is this: will new General Manager Chris Albright be armed with carte blanche to remake FC Cincinnati in his image, combining his excellent player development record with ownership’s deep pockets? Come March, we’ll know.
Here are a handful of storylines to know about Cincinnati’s 2021 season, and what could play out over the winter.
Incredibly, the club set more records for futility
- FC Cincinnati has already clinched its third successive Wooden Spoon—a figurative award given to the team that finishes last in points—a first in league history.
- As pointed out by writer Matt Doyle, FCC are the second team ever to clear minus-100 in goal differential, too.
- A loss Sunday would match the longest losing streak in MLS history. Over their current 11-game losing skid, the Orange and Blue have been outscored 34-13, allowing at least four goals in five separate matches.
- And because of its remarkably permeable defense of late, FC Cincinnati could reset its own MLS record for goals allowed, one it established in 2019. Having already nailed down the league’s worst defense for the second time in three years, three scores by Atlanta would match the current record of 75. The Five Stripes, presently sixth in the seven available East playoffs slots, demolished FCC 4-0 on September 15. A draw would secure Atlanta’s postseason bid, so expect no quarter to be shown by the 2018 MLS Cup winners.
- With 36 goals on the season, Cincinnati is slightly in danger of also being the lowest-scoring squad for the third year running. Entering Sunday, the club is four goals ahead of expansion side Austin, one goal up on Inter Miami and tied with Chicago and Houston.
Home isn’t where the hearts—err, wins—are
FC Cincinnati possesses only four victories on the year, and only one has come at their sparkling new grounds, TQL Stadium. A 2-0 victory over Toronto on September 11 is the club’s lone triumph at TQL, with its 1-10-5 (wins, losses, draws) mark serving as one of the worst home campaigns in league history.
This misery comes despite the advantage of playing in front of a consistently large and loud crowd, with FCC fans’ blind faith ensuring the club will finish top five in attendance. The 26,000-seat structure truly is a wonderful place to watch a match—the place will no doubt be a rapid thunderdome for the U.S. men’s World Cup qualifying match vs. Mexico on November 12—but supportive spectators only go so far when the on-field product is so often disorganized and overmatched.
Ownership starts over again (again)
When Jaap Stam was axed in late September after barely 16 months on the job, FC Cincinnati officially went hunting for its fourth full-time head coach since its first-ever MLS match on March 2, 2019. Albright is the franchise’s third General Manager. Turnover and turmoil are seldom a positive match in professional sports.
FCC President Jeff Berding emphasized MLS experience in his GM search that led to Albright, and the new GM—whom Berding referred to as possibly the most important hire in club history—is on record wanting MLS experience for the club’s new head coach. My hunch is FCC will have a new coach before the calendar turns to 2022, but not before the conclusion of the 2021 playoffs, which will end with the MLS Cup final on December 11.
When did things really go wrong in 2021?
FC Cincinnati offered some inspiration in its first 10 matches of the season, picking up 11 points over that stretch. But back-to-back matches in July set the tone for the rest of the season. The first was a 2-2 draw to Columbus on July 9 in which the hosts went up 2-0 inside 25 minutes and then saw Columbus have a man sent off in the 42nd minute. Instead of seizing the game, FCC sat back and eventually conceded twice in a draw that very much felt like a loss.
Eight days later in Montreal, FC Cincinnati led 2-0 after 14 minutes and 4-2 at halftime. It wound up losing 5-4, with Mason Toye’s winner being scored in the 87th minute. And lately the play of the team has swung wildly, marked by moments of quality but also marred by a complete lack of composure and cohesion. All of those attributes were summed nicely in last week’s 6-3 loss to Nashville. FCC were ahead 3-1 after 32 minutes and would have been up 4-1 had Brenner not picked the worst possible time for a shoddy panenka on a penalty kick. The hosts proceeded to concede five consecutive goals. I’m never one to question the efforts of professional athletes, but after reading the following quote from defender Geoff Cameron, a veteran of the English Premier League and the U.S. national team, it sure seems like some players have checked out.
“Keep saying the same thing over and over again but some efforts of—you know, I’m not gonna call out players but it’s not good enough. Watching, not tracking backs and overloads. It’s just, yeah, it’s a frustrating one. It’s a really frustrating one. … It’s just basics, honestly. Just basics of guys scrapping for one another, grafting for one another and, you know, some guys have it and some guys don’t. You can see it. It’s there on the pitch.”
What will the offseason bring?
Major League Soccer’s Players Association released player salary data last month. And while the figures need to be taken with a grain of salt because the straight salary numbers do not reflect potential buy-downs through TAM or GAM tools, the numbers do prove that several players aren’t exactly carrying their weight compared to their compensation or overall price tag when factors such as transfer fees are implemented. Albright will no doubt look to shed some of these earners to bolster the overall roster; his first trade last month netted $100,000 in 2022 GAM from Charlotte FC, an expansion team that opens play in 2022.
Last offseason, former GM Gerard Nijkamp swung big, paying a reported $13 million transfer fee for Brenner and $250,000 in GAM (plus future incentives) for Lucho Acosta. Those two are first and second on the team in goals with eight and seven, respectively, while Ascota leads the squad with nine assists. But any observer of the squad all season long wouldn’t say that either player has enjoyed standout seasons. That isn’t to say that Brenner and Acosta have been bad or even average. But because nothing of consequence was done to address the midfield, the back line (until Cameron showed up in April) and the overall depth of the roster, FC Cincinnati needed Brenner and Acosta to be damn near superhuman to cover up the rest of the roster holes. Of course, that didn’t happen, and disaster struck.
Following the 2020 season, I predicted who would be back for the 2021 season. I was mostly wrong, but I’ll humor the readers of this space with a handful of players I’d be shocked to see moved, mostly because they’re all under contract through at least next season: Brenner, Acosta, Isaac Atanga, Alvaro Barreal, and Ronald Mataritta. I could see Albright attempting to offload three high-earners: Yuya Kubo (who actually played very well in 2021 despite changing positions), Allan Cruz, and Kamo Mokotjo. It wouldn’t be surprising if there weren’t any takers, though.
For 2022, FC Cincinnati needs to settle on a new head coach with substantial MLS chops who, in concert with Albright and his cohorts, can drag this franchise from the league’s pit of misery and progress toward simple mediocrity.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.