Yes, FC Cincinnati is indeed a knockout (stage) team. Presented as a question, that was the headline of my column last week—and FC Cincinnati answered that query with a resolute 2-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls. The result cemented a second-place finish in Group E and a date with the Portland Timbers, winners of Group F, at 10:30 p.m. tonight in an MLS Is Back round of 16 match.
The winner plays New York City FC on Saturday night. The loser exits the MLS Is Back bubble and heads home to train for roughly three and a half weeks, with The Athletic reporting that MLS has targeted August 22 for the resumption of the “normal” regular season.
Advancing to MLS Is Back’s knockout round is FC Cincinnati’s greatest on-field accomplishment. Now, can they pull yet another rabbit out of the hat again? Anything is possible in this wacky tournament, and late tonight we’ll find out if FC Cincinnati’s unlikely run playing an unwatchable-but-effective style can hold up against a perennial Western Conference playoff team that navigated a tough Group F by claiming one-goal victories over LA Galaxy and Houston before drawing high-powered LAFC in its final match.
FC Cincinnati coach Jaap Stam has engineered a minor miracle at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. Following the 4-0 thrashing (that could’ve easily been 7-0) his team took at hands of the Columbus Crew in part by attempting—and failing miserably at—playing a visually appealing, possession-based game built on short, incisive passes with a 4-3-3 formation, Stam tossed out his original “Dutch way” game plan. FCC adopted a 3-5-2 defensive block, one that pinches down into a 5-3-2 (a formation that the team had been practicing prior to MLS Is Back). The Orange and Blue squeezed out a 1-0 victory against an Atlanta side that competed with 10 players for most of the game, and then doubled down on the strategy to prevail vs. New York Red Bulls in its Group E finale, thereby avenging its two pre-pandemic regular-season defeats.
Against the Red Bulls, Stam made just one change to his starting XI vs. Atlanta, with Tom Petterrson coming in for the injured Maikel van der Werff. As long as it maintained its defensive discipline, FC Cincinnati knew Red Bulls didn’t have the gifted center forward or the collective creative talent to break them down. New York finished with nearly 68 percent possession, registered 51 crosses and fired off 19 shots—only four of which were on target. The Red Bulls had zero shots on target through the game’s first 65 minutes. (Think they miss Bradley Wright-Phillips, the club’s all-time leading scorer, a bit?) For the first time since March 2019, FC Cincinnati have logged back-to-back clean sheets; the first of those wins was a 3-0 thrashing of Portland in FCC’s MLS home opener. (Some idiot wrote after that game that FC Cincinnati already belonged in Major League Soccer. You live and you learn.)
FC Cincinnati’s first goal vs. the Red Bulls started with left back/left winger Andrew Gutman’s incredible slide tackle and ended with Yuya Kubo’s second score of 2020, a nice bit of skill from the winger/forward to fire the ball between two defenders and past the outstretched goalkeeper. (Adrien Regattin’s run away from the ball also gave Kubo some extra space to work with.) The breakthrough in the 43rd minute was the Orange and Blue’s initial first-half goal all season.
The second score was an own goal by New York’s Florian Valot in the 56th minute, who sent a wrong-way header off of Haris Medajunanin’s corner kick into his own net. (The corner kick was FC Cincinnati’s first of the game.) The Red Bulls finished strong against a tiring Orange and Blue defense, but Przemysław Tytoń stood tall, racking up a couple of key saves to preserve the shutout.
It’s fair to wonder if FC Cincinnati can execute this demanding style of play all season. It requires tremendous buy-in, not only from a back line and midfielders already used to defending but from attacking players who know their time on the ball in the opponents’ half will be brief. Kubo and Regattin have done well as the two “forwards” in the formation, displaying solid hold-up play, knowing that they’re essentially a two-man counterattack.
But if The Athletic’s report about the season resuming on August 22 is accurate, the rest of the regular season schedule will be quite condensed, with 18 games played in around 12 weeks before the playoffs begin November 20. The 3-5-2 would require some rotation and tinkering to succeed for the rest of 2020. Ideally, once Jurgen Locadia—who is not expected to suit up tonight—is healthy, FCC can play with a similar mentality, either out of a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 that shifts depending on if it has the ball. Post-Red Bulls, Stam spoke about the need for buy-in and cohesion up and down the roster in order to successfully execute this unforgiving defensive style, but the former Dutch center back also hinted being better offensively and more “dominant” in the future.
Tonight, expect another defensive block vs. a gifted Portland attack that features the likes of the timeless Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco (11 assists in back-to-back seasons), and Jeremy Ebobisse (three goals in three MLS Is Back games; 11 goals last season). An altered identity or a new formation is for another time. For FC Cincinnati to advance to the MLS Is Back quarterfinals, winning ugly looks like the lone path to victory—and there’s no shame in that.
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.