The condensed post-MLS Is Back regular season schedule combined with a crumbling roster appears to have finally broken FC Cincinnati. Following a 3-0 defeat in Philadelphia last week, FCC were denied a late penalty and lost 1-0 at home to Toronto Sunday night. With six regular-season contests remaining, the Orange and Blue sit 13th in the Eastern Conference with 13 points (3 wins, 4 draws, 10 losses) from 17 games. Only two points separate FC Cincinnati from basement-dwelling D.C. United, and the possibility of finishing last in the East for the second consecutive season is inching closer to reality.
Injuries have begun to decimate FC Cincinnati’s already misshapen roster. After left back Greg Garza and striker Jurgen Locadia left the Philadelphia match with injuries, center back Kendall Waston picked up a knock in practice prior to Sunday’s match. All three were unavailable against Toronto, MLS’s top squad (37 points). During that match, right back Mathieu Deplagne went off in the first half and goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tytoń departed late in the second half with an apparent knee injury. Oh, and FCC’s top backup center back, Tom Pettersson, was unavailable due to illness.
Fortunately for head coach Jaap Stam, right back Saad Abdul-Salaam was available for the first time since July 22; midfielder Siem de Jong returned following a five-game absence; and left back/winger Andrew Gutman was fit enough to play following a two-match injury absence. Nick Hagglund also started, making a quick recovery after announcing on September 26 that he had contracted COVID-19. All four players took the field vs. Toronto. For Waston, it’s not surprising that his workload finally caught up to him. Prior to missing Sunday’s match, the 32-year-old had started every one of FCC’s 2020 matches and still ranks among the league’s minutes leaders despite his absence vs. Toronto.
That injuries are occurring in rapid succession—in particular, what appears to be a spate of muscle injuries—shouldn’t come as a shock. FC Cincinnati’s first post-MLS Is Back regular-season game took place August 21, and its final regular-season match is scheduled for November 8. Over that span, the club will have played 18 league games in 80 days, roughly one match every 4.5 days. In 2019, FCC played 34 league games over 219 days, or one match about every 6.5 days. Two days’ difference may not sound like a lot on the surface, but the extra days of rest add up quickly over the course of a regular season that typically requires around seven months to finish.
The haphazard nature of the 2020 campaign—a fact out of anyone’s control, obviously—hasn’t helped. FC Cincinnati completed two league matches in early March before COVID-19 shut down the league. When MLS reconvened in Orlando in July for MLS Is Back, FCC had four games in 17 days after not playing a competitive match for four months. Then three and a half weeks passed before FC Cincinnati commenced its regular-season restart.
On Sunday, FC Cincinnati began a stretch of five successive (presumably fan-less) forays at Nippert Stadium. Barring a miracle run of results, these matches represent the final contests for the club at the University of Cincinnati’s football stadium, FC Cincinnati’s home since its inaugural season in 2016. FCC’s last scheduled home match is October 28 vs. Sporting KC. Construction on the West End Stadium has continued through the pandemic, so the club’s new home remains tipped to open the 2021 MLS season.
It’s a damn shame Orange and Blue supporters won’t be able to provide Nippert with a proper send-off; instead, they’ll have to savor their own personal memories from home. I hadn’t paid much mind to FC Cincinnati before a family friend invited me to their first home game in 2016, and I was blown away by the size of the crowd. I was there for the club’s lone playoff victory (via penalty kicks) in 2018. But it’s the home matches vs. Columbus, Chicago (one of the best sporting events I’ve attended, period) and New York Red Bulls during FC Cincinnati’s U.S. Open Cup run in 2017 that will always be burned into my memory, three hellaciously loud and entertaining (midweek!) Nippert environments.
Prior to tonight’s fourth Hell Is Real Derby of the season against Columbus, FC Cincinnati announced another player acquisition, though he won’t be able to join the shorthanded roster immediately. Franko Kovačević, a 21-year-old Croatian striker for Bundesliga side TSG Hoffenheim, has been brought over on loan by FCC through June 30, 2021. He has yet to make his first-team debut, but he’s scored six goals in 11 appearances for Hoffenheim’s second team.
FC Cincinnati and Hoffenheim announced a partnership in late September, and this is the first player move in that deal. We’ll see if Kovačević can clear the necessary government and health protocols to debut prior to the end of the season, but it’s evident General Manager Gerard Nijkamap had his eye on 2021 with this move. “Franko is a player that will provide competition for our forward position group,” Nijkamp said. “We look forward to getting him integrated within our team so that he is familiar with the organization, club philosophy and city prior to the start of the 2021 season.”
Injuries and another goal-less streak (the current one is at five-plus matches) have ushered FC Cincinnati into a tailspin. Now the East’s third-place team awaits, and Columbus has outscored FC Cincinnati 7-0 in three matches this season. Can the walking wounded summon some magic—Álvaro Barreal’s platinum blonde hair didn’t do the trick last week—as their stay at Nippert comes to a close? The scoring sorcery may not arrive tonight, but who knows what will happen when last-place D.C. United shows up on Sunday. (Let’s be real, probably a 0-0 draw.)