In 2019, FC Cincinnati submitted an abominable inaugural campaign in Major League Soccer, accumulating 24 points from 34 league matches. The Orange and Blue established a new single-season MLS record for goals allowed while also finishing dead last in goals scored. Incredibly, the club also went through three head coaches: Alan Koch, Yoann Damet (interim), and Ron Jans.
FC Cincinnati have improved in 2020, barely. The COVID-19 pandemic thrust the season into chaos, eventually berthing the MLS Is Back tournament in July to restart the league ahead of a rejiggered and condensed regular season. This year, FCC has conceded fewer goals and (narrowly) performed better points-wise but has struggled even more to score. Again, there was coaching turmoil. Ron Jans departed on the eve of the season, forcing Damet into the interim position once more. Jaap Stam was hired as the new head coach in May during the league’s shutdown.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, with FC Cincinnati facing Inter Miami in its 23rd and final league match of the season Sunday afternoon after playing 34 MLS games in 2019.
|Goals For Per Game||0.5||0.9|
|Goals Allowed Per Game||1.5||2.2|
|Points Per Game||0.73||0.71|
FC Cincinnati’s goal-prevention improvement is clear, further evidenced by the defense recording two additional clean sheets (seven) already in 2020 than it did in all of 2019 (five), in 12 fewer matches. On the flip side, the club is closing in on another single-season MLS record, this time for offensive futility. Per ESPN, the Orange and Blue require four goals against Miami to avoid becoming the lowest-scoring team in MLS history on a per-game basis, an inglorious record held by 2013 D.C. United (0.65 goals per game). The obvious caveat with that statistic is matches played; that D.C. United team completed 34 league matches, so FCC will have been robbed of the chance to improve upon—or worsen, since the club has been shut out 14 times this season—their goal-scoring performance.
It’s impossible to quantify how the stop-start-sprint nature of the pandemic-influenced season has affected FC Cincinnati (or any other MLS squad), but what we do know is the clubs traversed an unprecedented scattershot slate of matches. FC Cincinnati played its first two games of the year on March 1 and 7 before the pandemic caused a four-month shutdown. Beginning on July 11, the club played four matches in 18 days at MLS Is Back, falling in penalty kicks in their round-of-16 match to Portland. FCC’s advancement to the knockout round is arguably the highlight of the franchise’s tenure in MLS. After a three and a half week break, the regular season resumed under a compressed schedule. From Aug. 21 through this weekend, FC Cincinnati will have played 18 matches in 80 days, an average of one every 4.4 days. (In 2019, the club played a league match roughly every 6.5 days.)
Other obstacles included an unbalanced schedule, same-day travel to prevent possible infections, constant COVID testing, and playing in (mostly) fan-less stadiums. The cramped slate caused injuries to pile up over the season’s final weeks. Prior to FC Cincinnati’s 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City in the franchise’s home finale at Nippert Stadium, team play-by-play broadcaster Tom Gelehrter noted that 18 players had missed time in October through injury or illness.
Looking ahead to 2021, the West End Stadium remains on track to open in March. MLS will presumably attempt to complete a full 34-match season for each of its teams, regardless of the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations. Let’s take a look at a handful of key storylines and points to consider as FC Cincinnati prepares for a franchise-defining offseason and critical 2021 campaign.
Will head coach Jaap Stam and General Manager Gerard Nijkamp return?
All indications are that FC Cincinnati’s Dutch braintrust will be back, though recent comments by Nijkamp indicate that he’s feeling the heat for the first time since arriving in May 2019. He recently told Cincinnati Soccer Talk that the club needed at least two more transfer windows to compete in MLS. Days later, though, Nijkamp spoke to The Cincinnati Enquirer and stated that the team will compete for the playoffs in 2021, couching that view by saying contention depends on the players the club can bring in and send out. Lost revenues, most notably by fan-less home games in a shortened season, certainly won’t make Stam’s and Nijkamp’s jobs any easier.
FC Cincinnati needs to score more goals. How will they do it?
The club likely thought they addressed their scoring issue last offseason by bringing in striker/winger Jurgen Locadia and winger/midfielder Yuya Kubo as Designated Players, along with former Ajax stalwart Siem de Jong. Those investments have not only not paid dividends yet, the results have been shockingly poor.
|Player||Minutes||Shots||Shots on Goal||Goals||Assists|
Locadia, who recently expressed disappointment in his performance on his Instagram, has blown a bevy of easy chances but has also been the victim of brilliant goalkeeping at times. He’s an easy and, arguably, a rightful target for criticism because of his price tag and history of bagging goals abroad.
Kubo is actually the team’s leading scorer but never found consistency, as Stam tasked him with more defensive duties than Kubo likely expected when the team played a 3-5-2 for an extended stretch of the season. As FCC transitioned to a 4-3-3 with the season winding down, he played in his more natural position along the wing or as a No. 10.
As for de Jong, he was brought in to unlock the final third of the field and make the Orange and Blue’s attack flow better. The defensive formation did him no favors, but even when put in opportune situations de Jong underperformed. His volume of clear misses does not match Locadia’s, but he was just as wasteful. I’d be stunned if he returned.
The notable in-season move to boost the offense in the present but especially in the years to come was the signing of winger Álvaro Barreal from Argentina. The 20-year-old has already appeared in five games this season, flashing needed skill and ingenuity, and his development will play a massive role in FC Cincinnati’s offensive fortunes in 2021.
The club has made a few additional moves recently to reinforce its attack. First, forward Franko Kovacević was brought over on loan from Bundesliga side Hoffenheim on Oct. 12. He’ll occupy an international roster spot, and his loan deal expires on June 30, 2021. The 21-year-old has played in Croatia’s top league but never debuted for Hoffenheim’s first team. Second, backup striker Brandon Vazquez inked a multi-year contract extension on October 29. The 22-year-old has an assist, two goals, and nine shots on goal in 747 minutes this season.
Are these two moves striker insurance in case the club decides not to pick up Locadia’s loan option on June 30, 2021? If FCC exercises that option, he’d be contracted with the Orange and Blue through the 2023 season. Nijkamp said in June he was able to negotiate a lower fee than the original $10 million to be paid to English Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion. And as much as Stam and Nijkamp have praised Locadia’s all-around game, including his willingness to play as a winger lately, FCC’s prized signing is paid to score goals.
If Locadia can’t find the back of the net in the first three to four months of the 2021 season, it’s going to be difficult for Stam and Nijkamp to justify his wages to ownership. In any case, given the investments already made and the financial losses of 2020, don’t expect another Locadia-sized offensive signing for 2021.
Who is staying and going from the current roster?
First of all, MLS contracts are basically state secrets. When it comes to FC Cincinnati, Cincinnati Soccer Talk’s salary tracker isn’t a bad place to start, but it isn’t a complete set of data. Unless FCC announces an extension with a player, like they did with Vazquez, midfielder Allan Cruz last November or defender Kendall Waston in July 2019, we tend to know precious little about player contracts. Nonetheless, here’s my stab at who stays, who goes, and whose future I’m uncertain about.
Stay: Locadia, Kubo, Cruz, Kovacević, and Watson as well as defenders Maikel van der Werff, Mathieu Deplagne, Tom Pettersson, and Saad Abdul-Salaam and midfielders Frankie Amaya and Kamohelo Mokotjo.
Cruz endured a lost 2020 after leading the team in goals in 2019 and earning Designated Player status along with his aforementioned contract extension. Various injuries nipped at his availability this season, but when Cruz was healthy he was often passed over by Stam—not only as a starter but as an available substitute. Cruz is just 24 and, like Kubo, he was shuffled around in different midfield and winger roles depending on FCC’s formation. I think Cruz functions best as a box-to-box central midfielder, whose defensive instincts outweigh his offensive gifts. And yet those same traits can be applied to Amaya, the former No. 1 overall pick who is among the league leaders in successful tackles, and Mokotjo, who was brought in to be a ball-winning, deep-lying defensive midfielder.
When both Waston and van der Werff are healthy, I believe they are still the first choice center backs, even if each lacks pace. And while I haven’t been particularly impressed with Deplagne, the right back can also provide cover at left back or center back.
Go: de Jong, left back Greg Garza, center back Nick Hagglund, and midfielder Caleb Stanko.
Garza is simply too much of an injury risk as he approaches 30, and he lost his starting spot when he was healthy this year. Hagglund has mostly played well in place of the injured Waston lately, but there are cheaper and/or younger options for the team to fill its No. 4 center back role. The arrival of Mokotjo in August sealed Stanko’s exit from the club.
Unsure: Left back Andrew Gutman, midfielder/forward Joe Gyau, midfielder Haris Medunjanin, and goalkeepers Przemyslaw Tytoń and Spencer Richey.
At MLS Is Back, Gutman officially uspurped Garza as Stam’s preferred option at left back, even if the 24-year-old needs further development in his offensive game. Gutman’s rights are owned by Scottish side Celtic, though, and his loan spell expires at the end of the season. I would think FC Cincinnati would want Gutman back, but we’ll see what Celtic thinks.
Gyau played all over the pitch in 2020, and I believe he’s best suited for right back. He just doesn’t have the finishing touch to be a productive forward or advanced winger, even if his pace is a tremendous weapon. I have no idea what his contract situation is, though.
At times, Medujanin has seemed like FCC’s lone creative outlet, and at age 35 he’s shown his durability by playing in 20 of 22 games. Still, you wonder if the club will let him walk in favor of a younger option and also to explore what they have in Amaya, Cruz, and Mokotjo.
At goalkeeper, Tytoń seems more likely to return, given he’s started 12 games this season and won the starting battle after Stam took over as coach. Richey’s chances are hurt by the development of Bun Lundt, a second round pick of the club in 2019. Lundt has spent the past two seasons on loan at USL Championship side Louisville City and was recently named USL Championship Goalkeeper of the Year for the 2020 season.
Are the playoffs a possibility next season?
They better be. Carl Lindner III and friends didn’t drop $250 million to construct West End Stadium in order to host a third consecutive basement-dwelling season, even if the franchise’s shiny new facility will most likely spend most or all of its first season hosting fans in various forms of reduced capacity. As far as roster improvement, I believe Nijkamp has already put in the lion’s share of his work for 2021 via last offseason’s offensive additions and the in-season insertions of Barreal and Mokotjo. In the coming months, the club will look to find a few players that can break into the starting XI and/or add better-quality depth.
Stats aside, the eye test indicated that FC Cincinnati—playing through a pandemic-influenced season and riddled with injuries in the final month-plus of the season—were an improved side from 2019 (admittedly, that’s not saying much) and were quite unlucky in a number of matches that should have been draws (instead of heart-breaking losses) or wins (instead of head-scratching scoreless draws).
Starting next year, the what-ifs don’t matter. This is no longer a cuddly MLS expansion franchise with an impressive fanbase. Beginning in a few months, FC Cincinnati is a third-year MLS franchise with a still-robust fanbase that remains loyal but will begin to exhibit frustrations if the team’s fortunes don’t swing toward contention.
In 2021, FC Cincinnati needs to roughly split its wins, losses, and draws. That’s all it takes to contend for the playoffs in MLS. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.