Analyzing FC Cincinnati’s New Player Signings

Some of the 13 newcomers have become roster stalwarts, while others are yet to make their mark. How well has FCC done with evaluating and signing talent?

A few days ago, FC Cincinnati inked longtime MLS defender Chris Duvall to a contract for the remainder of the season with a club option for next year. The 29-year-old Duvall, a right back who has more than 100 MLS appearances under his belt, had been on trial with FCC. His signing provides cover for normal right back Joe Gyau, who’s played at left winger recently, with center back Nick Hagglund filling in at right back. Duvall made his debut as a sub in Saturday’s 4-1 defeat to the New England Revolution, a result that extended the Orange and Blue’s winless drought to 10 games.

Duvall’s signing isn’t big news, but the acquisition got me thinking about how FC Cincinnati’s new additions for 2021—whether brought on board before the start of the season or during it—have fared through 19 matches. I’ve listed the players in alphabetical order.

Lucho Acosta was signed to be FC Cincinnati’s best player and fill the gaping playmaking void the club has had since it made the leap from the United Soccer League in 2019. He’s fulfilled that role with aplomb, leading the team in assists (five) and fouls suffered (42). He is tied in on-target scoring attempts (13) and is second in goals (four). What the 5-foot-3 Argentinian and team captain lacks in height he makes up for in dribbling ability, pace, and ingenuity. Even with Acosta, though, FCC has scored just 19 goals on the year.

Isaac Atanga is a pacey winger who joined FCC on the last day of March from the Danish Superliga. After starting seven matches from May through July, the 21-year-old has seen his playing time dip recently, logging just 27 minutes as a sub over FC Cincinnati’s past five games. Atanga remains a major work-in-progress.

FCC fans haven’t yet caught a glimpse of the club’s latest signing, Tyler Blackett, a 27-year-old defender who can play left back or center back. He was acquired at the start of August but is still recovering from minor groin surgery after injuries limited him to 14 appearances for English second division club Nottingham Forest in 2020-21. Signed through June 2022, he’d give Jaap Stam, his former head coach at English side Reading, important experience at both positions once he’s healthy.

Brenner was the club’s record signing—a reported $13 million from Brazilian team São Paulo FC—and he’s been a workhorse, starting every match and leading the team in minutes, including playing at least 80 minutes in 16 matches. He scored FC Cincinnati’s lone goal Saturday night, giving him the team lead with five. He’s also tied with Acosta in on-target scoring attempts. With FCC playing a more defensive style of late (or at least attempting to), the young Brazilian is often out on his own island, but he’s very much a team player, pressing defenders and creating turnovers that have led to goals or goal-scoring opportunities for himself or his teammates. Brenner’s future remains bright, so long as management puts talented midfielders and wingers around him.

Like Acosta on the offensive side of the ball, FC Cincinnati would be lost defensively without Geoff Cameron. A mid-May signing from English second division side Queens Park Rangers, he’s a steady force at center back. Although he’s lost a few steps at age 36, his knowledge of the game, gleaned from his many years in the English Premier League and for the U.S. men’s national team, make him an indispensable defender.

Edgar Castillo joined the club on trial in March and then garnered a one-year contract in April. He’s made six starts at left back, backing up starter Ronald Matarrita. The 34-year-old veteran of both MLS and Liga MX has been solid when called upon, and his goal less than 30 seconds into Cincinnati’s first match vs. Columbus remains one of the team’s top moments of 2021.

Cody Cropper was signed in December to add depth at goalkeeper, having made 36 MLS starts prior to arriving in Cincinnati. His only action this year came in the second game of the season, a 5-0 loss at New York City. The backup to then-No. 1 keeper Przemysław Tytoń, Cropper was thrust into the starting XI after Tytoń suffered an injury in pregame warm-ups.

It’s not a high bar to clear, but Ronald Matarrita is head and shoulders above any left back FC Cincinnati has ever fielded. He’s keen to get in on the attack—Matarrita’s three assists are second on the team—but is also a capable defender. He didn’t come cheaply from New York City FC ($500,000 in General Allocation Money), but he’s been a worthwhile investment for the club.

Ben Mines is a 21-year-old midfielder picked up via 2020 End-of-Year Waivers. He’d spent the previous five years primarily with New York Red Bulls II, though he did make six appearances for the organization’s first team. Mines had not logged a single minute of action with FCC before he was loaned to Orange County SC last week for the remainder of the USL Championship season.

Gustavo Vallecilla was the more under-the-radar spring acquisition from South America by then-General Manager Gerard Nijkamp. Only 22, he joined the club on a one-year loan from Ecuadorian side SD Aucas on April 5 and made his first start six weeks later next to Cameron. The two have become Stam’s preferred center back partnership, as Vallecilla has started the team’s past 16 matches. He flashes potential both as a passer and as an offensive aerial threat, as he’s scored twice on headers from set pieces, though he has plenty to work on with positioning and decision-making.

Florian Valot, a midfielder, was picked up earlier this month from Red Bulls in exchange for $50,000 in 2022 General Allocation Money to add long overdue depth in midfield. He has 34 MLS starts and nine assists in his MLS career—notably 23 appearances and 17 starts in 2020—and made his first start for FC Cincinnati Saturday night. The 28-year-old has battled knee injuries in his career but should immediately become part of Stam’s rotation and help lighten the load on Acosta, Alvaro Barreal, Allan Cruz, and Yuya Kubo.

Kenneth Vermeer, picked up from the league’s Waiver List in early May, immediately snatched the starting goalkeeper role. The 35-year-old made 14 consecutive starts from May 16 through August 7 but hasn’t featured since being subbed off on August 7 against Orlando City. A longtime pro in the Netherlands and a former teammate of Stam’s for Dutch side Ajax, Vermeer has endured an up-and-down season, but the success of any goalkeeper is directly tied to the keeper’s surrounding defenders, who have been, shall I say, inconsistent for FC Cincinnati.

Conclusion: The signings have been a mixed bag. Acosta, Brenner, Cameron, and Matarrita have been clear hits, while some of the very young additions like Atanga and Vallecilla have endured their share of growing pains adjusting to MLS. Some of the more experienced backups have filled their roles well, while others have struggled.

If FC Cincinnati were enjoying success (or even mediocrity), its wide manner of acquiring players—loans, signings, trades, waiver pickups, etc. from across North and South America and Europe—could be applauded. Instead, because the team has never found sustained success, the strategy looks more like playing darts while blindfolded.

On Friday, FC Cincinnati (17 points, 13th in the East) will face Columbus in the second Hell Is Real derby of 2021. It will be the Orange and Blue’s first time at Field, which opened about seven weeks after TQL Stadium hosted its initial match. Columbus (24 points, 9th in the East) is struggling just about as much as FCC at the moment, having dropped six successive matches.

Friday is a chance for the Orange and Blue to nab points from a more talented but scuffling side. Moreover, the visitors also have bulletin board material following the first derby in July thanks to Columbus coach Caleb Porter.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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