There’s something to be said for trying shit. And Jaap Stam, with his undermanned roster rudderless, feckless, and trailing New York City 2-0 exactly 20 minutes into the second half this past Saturday night, decided to try some shit. He took off the ineffective Yuya Kubo and Siem de Jong and subbed in Allan Cruz and Nick Hagglund. Kubo, who started alongside striker Jurgen Locadia at the top of FC Cincinnati’s 3-5-2, needs time to build a relationship with Locadia after spending the crux of the season playing in the midfield; de Jong should be strictly a bench player until FCC has the necessary parts to play its desired 4-3-3. Right back Mathieu Deplagne moved to the right wing, pushing right winger Joe Gyau up next to Locadia. Left back Andrew Gutman moved up to left winger, and Hagglund played as a third center back in a 3-4-3 formation we haven’t yet seen from the club.
FC Cincinnati immediately turned up the ball pressure and made NYCFC more uncomfortable than rush hour on a Manhattan subway. That newfound aggression paid dividends right after backup striker Brandon Vazquez came on for defensive midfielder Caleb Stanko in the 73rd minute. As a direct result of the pressing from FCC’s reformatted front line and midfield, Vazquez converted a NYCFC turnover into the Orange and Blue’s first goal in 558 minutes one minute after his insertion into the game. Whether it was a planned alternative or a WTF moment, Stam’s radical formation adjustment completely changed the game. The hosts were shook.
FC Cincinnati’s ball pressure created turnovers and stray passes. Gyau (with his pace, even if his final touch on attacking third passes/crosses needs major improvement) and Cruz (with his calmness on the ball, especially with Frankie Amaya suspended because of yellow card accumulation) were particularly influential, and both Locadia and Vazquez were lively. The TV broadcast repeatedly showed NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila—who had no reason to suspect a 3-4-3 was coming—looking increasingly nervous. Close goal-scoring efforts from Vazquez (who had a second score wiped out for offside minutes after his first goal for the club) and Kendall Waston (a sound header on a corner that required a quick-twitch save by NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson) only added to the anxiety.
In the end, the visitors extended their winless streak to seven matches, but a blowout was averted. FCC finished with just two fewer shots (16-14) and equaled NYCFC in shots on target (five). FC Cincinnati couldn’t muster serious takes on goal over the final stages of the game, which required eight minutes of stoppage time thanks to the time-wasting chicanery of certain NYCFC players.
It was concerning to witness FC Cincinnati, with a full week of rest, playing very 2019-y up until Stam decided to take the parked bus out for a spin. Yes, FCC were playing shorthanded, with Amaya (who had started every game of the season) suspended and forward Adrien Regattin leaving the club the day before the game to return to his family in France. (Regattin had apparently been homesick for weeks.) Ideally, Regattin would have provided pyrotechnics off the bench for Stam, but because of Locadia’s injury and the formation change, he wound up starting seven of the 10 games he played in for the Orange and Blue. His departure opens up an international spot for new signing Álvaro Barreal.
Off the pitch, MLS finally revealed the next phase of the league’s regular season matches. FC Cincinnati is going to be spending a lot of time at Red Bull Arena, which is where NYCFC are playing their home games since Yankee Stadium’s baseball-playing tenant gets first dibs these days. FCC will again get another full week of rest this week before traveling back to Harrison, New Jersey, to face the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, a team they lost to in their 2020 opener but defeated 2-0 at MLS Is Back.
FC Cincinnati’s final two known games are a home match on Sept. 23 vs. the Philadelphia Union (no fans will be in attendance) and another road match opposite NYCFC on Sept. 26. As of this morning, the Union were second in the East, NYCFC were sixth, and NYCFC were seventh. General Manager Gerard Nijkamp was “really disappointed” about the latest slate of matches and is probably wondering when FCC (13th in the East) will get to face off against either of the 2020 expansion sides (Nashville and Inter Miami).
As part of the schedule release, MLS also officially finalized the playoff format for this season. As rumored, 10 of the East’s 14 teams will receive playoff bids, though the No. 7 through No. 10 seeds must engage in play-in matches (7 vs. 10; 8 vs. 9) to determine who will advance to “round one.” The lower-seeded advancing team will face the East’s top seed, while the higher-seeded team will take on the No. 2 seed. Eight squads from the 12-team Western Conference will directly advance to round one, which, like the rest of the postseason, is single elimination.
With Amaya back in the fold for Saturday’s match, it will be fascinating to see if Stam starts off in the 3-4-3, particularly with Deplagne, typically the starting right back in the 3-5-2, suspended for yellow card accumulation. Cruz has battled injuries all season, but he did log 33 minutes on Saturday. Having him able to start and work himself into form in the midfield is something FC Cincinnati desperately needs right now. Well, that and an overdue win.