Can FC Cincinnati Salvage Some Dignity?

Thursday morning’s match against Atlanta is make-or-break time in the MLS Is Back tournament.

Well, at least by now FC Cincinnati fans are accustomed to blowout losses in Major League Soccer. In its opening MLS Is Back Group E match over the weekend, FC Cincinnati was blown to bits by Columbus, suffering a shambolic 4-0 setback that was worrying and disheartening on many levels. Now, with four days to collect themselves—last Saturday’s match didn’t kick off until nearly 11:30 p.m. in Orlando because lightning delayed the first game of the night—FCC must reorganize its tactics and personnel, salvage some personal pride, and, to paraphrase an infamous locker room scolding by ex-Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, simply be bleeping pros after enduring soccer purgatory in the first edition of the Hell Is Real rivalry to be played outside of Ohio.

 

The Orange and Blue’s second Group E match—remember, all three group stage tilts count in the regular-season standings—kicks off at 9 a.m. Thursday against Atlanta, which dropped its opener 1-0 to New York Red Bulls in a very tight match. An FCC loss would all but eliminate any chance of moving on to the knockout stage, and even a draw wouldn’t do much good given the team’s goal differential deficit (the first tiebreaker for advancement). Before I completely eviscerate FC Cincinnati, it’s worth reminding myself and you, dear reader, of the strange and difficult situation the club is in, with circumstances both in and out of its control.

For one, FC Cincinnati and the rest of MLS clubs (save for the withdrawn FC Dallas and Nashville) are competing in a tournament that the league has never tried before … in a medically constructed “bubble” at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex … whose location happens to be right smack in the middle in one of COVID-19’s surge states. Positive tests have forced FC Dallas and Nashville out of the tournament, and Sunday’s game between D.C. United and Toronto was postponed after a positive test and an inconclusive test. Throw in The Athletic’s report this week that MLS is receiving much quicker COVID-19 test results than Florida residents, and MLS Is Back’s moral standing, at best, is on wobbly grounds. Others would argue that now, more than ever, the country needs the uplifting distraction that rooting for your favorite sports team can provide. And, aside from the ass-kicking Columbus administered on Saturday night, virtually every other MLS Is Back match has been close and/or compelling despite players trudging through the brutal summer Florida heat.

Now let’s address FC Cincinnati’s own role in its ineptitude. Last season, the club kept too many players from its 2018 United Soccer League roster, struck out in the expansion draft (hello Darren Mattocks, Roland Lamah and Eric Alexander!) and strangely gave up $150,000 in targeted allocation money to buy five SuperDraft picks from Philadelphia despite the declining impact of drafted players; most players taken in the SuperDraft are college players who more than likely would have been in MLS team academies at an earlier age if they possessed the talent to be potential pros.

Nonetheless, the 2019 tactical set-up was built in Alan Koch’s vision. But things got so bad on and off the field that Koch was sacked by early May. Assistant coach Yoann Damet came in as interim coach and adapted FCC to the Dutch, play-out-of-the-back, possession-based style. Later in the year, Ron Jans arrived, and the tactics eventually shifted again as FC Cincinnati simply tried to stop allowing so many damn goals.

This past offseason, the players expected to play under Jans. Then, the Dutch coach was ousted on the eve of the regular season. Once more, Damet led the team on a temporary basis. Worse yet, new offensive signings like Siem de Jong and Jurgen Locadia barely had any time to meet their teammates, let alone practice with them.

Then the pandemic hit. Jaap Stam was eventually hired as head coach, and again there were new things to learn. Players like Allan Cruz, Kendall Waston, Mathieu Deplagne, Frankie Amaya, Kekutah Manneh, and others have spent two years under constantly shifting tactics and systems. The players from 2019 and the players this year aren’t good enough as a unit to simply ride with those rollicking waves of change and suddenly morph into a playoff contender. Some of these players are suited for a defend-and-counter scheme. Others are more tuned for a slower, possession-based game. New coaches, differing tactics, mismatched players—all in less than two seasons. The level of perpetual disorganization is almost admirable.

As for last weekend’s match, the affair was tepid until Columbus designated player Lucas Zelarayán added some zest with a sparkling free kick goal in the 27th minute after Amaya—whose poise on the ball Saturday failed to match his propensity for volatile, ill-timed fouls—gave away the free kick in a dangerous spot. Gyasi Zardes added another for the Crew three minutes later and struck again four minutes into the second half to ice the game. (Zardes has five goals in three career matches vs. FC Cincinnati. For you long-suffering Reds fans, Zardes is to FCC as former Houston Astro Lance Berkman was to the 2000s Reds.)

The surprise wasn’t that FC Cincinnati lost on Saturday; Columbus are a legitimate playoff team with a MLS Cup-winning coach and a balanced, veteran-laden roster. The shocking part was just how disjointed the effort was from FCC and how eerily similar the performance was to its pre-pandemic, first-half showing in the 2020 opener under Damet at New York Red Bulls. FCC started semi-strongly on Saturday through 15 or so minutes, but its half-press was easily circumvented and dented by the Crew, who completed 91 percent of their 341 first-half passes, including 82 percent of their 162 passes in FC Cincinnati’s side of the field.

Stam was clearly tinkering with just about everything in his first match. He gave club debuts to Saad Abdul-Salaam at right back (over Deplagne), Tom Pettersson at center back (presumably over the injured Maikel van der Werff), and de Jong in midfield. In total, there were six changes to the starting XI from the last game the club played. Adrien Regattin, nominally a winger, played as the forward with Jurgen Locadia out injured, presumably to lead the defensive press. (It cannot be overstated just how important Locadia is to this team, by the way.) None of it worked.

In 37 MLS games, FC Cincinnati has lost by at least three goals eight times and been shut out 13 times. That constant stream of negativity has to affect a team’s mentality—particularly for the guys who have been here both seasons—and post-game, Stam said his team’s performance slumped after blowing an early goal-scoring chance and conceding the first goal. Throughout the game, some FCC players appeared to be focused on bunkering in while others pressed, obviously an ill-conceived, incoherent approach that was acknowledged by de Jong.

The Dutch-style build-out-of-the-back system that Stam and General Manager Gerard Nijkamp apparently want to play can’t function with this roster. However, FC Cincinnati also can’t simply bunker in defensively and counter, because they lack the dynamism and ball-winning in the midfield to turn their attacking players loose, particularly if de Jong and Haris Medunjanin, two tactically gifted but slow-footed midfielders, are sharing the pitch. If de Jong sits, it’s harder for FCC to play fluidly in the opponent’s final third and score. If Medunjanin sits, it’s more difficult for the team to build out of the back.

There was some actual good news for FC Cincinnati last week, as the final steel beam for the West End Stadium was laid into place. Despite the pandemic, the facility remains on track to open for the 2021 campaign. Hopefully by next season, FCC will be in a better place, one where fans can fill its new stadium and where the official Twitter of one city isn’t trolling the City of Cincinnati’s Twitter on account of its inferior professional soccer team.

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

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