FC Cincinnati’s laborious, disappointing initial season in Major League Soccer reaches its merciful conclusion Sunday afternoon in our nation’s capital against D.C. United. The tilt will mark FCC’s fourth straight match against an Eastern Conference playoff hopeful, and following a well-played 1-1 draw vs. Orlando City last weekend, the Orange and Blue will be searching for its third straight result and points for the fourth time in five games.
Fortunately for FC Cincinnati, Wayne Rooney will miss the game due to a suspension for yellow card accumulation. Nonetheless, D.C. United will be well-motivated to prevail and ensure that Rooney—slated to head back across the Atlantic after the season to be a player/coach at English club Derby County—plays one additional match in front of the club’s home supporters. D.C.’s present standing at fourth in the East has it in line to host a first-round knockout game, but a slip to fifth means the club will instead hit the playoff road.
Again, for FC Cincinnati, it’s a chance to continue its improved form, but the harsh reality is that 2019 FCC will go down as one of the worst MLS sides in recent memory. Here’s why:
The Orange and Blue will finish with 23, 24 or 26 points, slotting it next to 2013 D.C. United (16 points), the 2018 San Jose Earthquakes (21) and 2012 Toronto FC (23) in the pit of MLS misery for worst teams over the last decade. The club endured four separate four-game losing skids, including five- and six-game losing streaks. After gaining seven points from its first four MLS matches, FC Cincinnati acquired just four over its next 14. Following FCC’s 3-0 dunking of Portland in the season’s third game, some idiot postulated that MLS’s newest team might already “belong.” Oops.
FC Cincinnati conceded its 75th goal of the year on Sunday, establishing a new league record, breaking the one-year-old mark held by Orlando. Though the Orange and Blue have improved lately by surrendering just three goals over its past four matches, FCC has allowed four goals an incredible seven times and notched just four clean sheets all season. Personnel issues plagued the team’s defense all year. Due to left back Greg Garza’s season-long injury woes and the failure to acquire a proper backup until Andrew Gutman’s arrival in early August, FC Cincinnati was forced to push Mathieu Deplagne from right back (his more comfortable position) to left back, which meant more time for the offensively-minded Alvas Powell and the past-his-prime Justin Hoyte at right back. The team’s original starting center backs were Kendall Waston and Nick Hagglund, which changed to Waston and Hoyte under interim coach Yoann Damet, which has shifted to Waston and Maikel van der Werff under Ron Jans. The defensive midfield spot—or spots, depending on the formation—were in constant flux, negating any sort of rhythm between the back line and midfield. In summation, whatever could go wrong went wrong.
FC Cincinnati has scored just 31 times through 33 league matches, the lowest total in the league. (There are ample advanced metrics to measure team success, but finishing last in both goals allowed and goals scored is a pretty good indicator of overall failure.) From late March through damn near mid-May, FCC failed to score a goal from open play, a drought of 662 minutes. Striker Fanendo Adi was a complete flop as the franchise’s first-ever designated player, scoring one goal in 695 minutes. Backup striker Darren Mattocks wasn’t much better, recording three goals in 1,274 minutes. In fairness to both players, they were dealt precious little service in attacking areas at times. Adi has filed a complaint with the league alleging his playing minutes were reduced so he wouldn’t collect certain contract bonuses.
Again, to reiterate the obvious, 2019 was an outright dumpster fire on the field. The strategy of rounding out the roster with players from its 2018 USL squad was short-sighted at the time and got worse during the season, as was the call to load the roster with defenders and defense-first midfielders without a sound defensive scheme. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the roster in part built by an overmatched coach (Alan Koch) and former general manager with no pro soccer background (Jeff Berding) failed.
The talent cupboard isn’t totally bare. Midfielder Allan Cruz, the squad’s leader in goals, is just 23 and his status as a regular on a strong Costa Rican national team is a good barometer for his bright future. No. 1 overall pick Frankie Amaya displayed more creativity and poise on the ball than any other regular, and he just turned 19. Garza is still one of the league’s better left backs. The 6-5 Waston remains a fortress most nights. Joe Gyau was excellent last weekend attacking from the wing and could prove to be a shrewd pickup.
Now we’ll see if the new Dutch braintrust of Jans and General Manager Gerard Nijkamp can do better than their predecessors. FC Cincinnati at least seems intent on constructing a winner, judging by Nijkamp’s previous public comments. And why wouldn’t it? After all, franchise owners are investing half a billion dollars in a stadium and a training complex—what the hell would be the point of those projects without building a sustained winner?
First, though, FC Cincinnati must achieve respectability. The offseason promises to be eventful, and FCC will be active in free agency, the domestic and international transfer market, the SuperDraft and possibly even the expansion draft. Stay tuned.
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.