Well, Jaap Stam’s honeymoon is officially over. FC Cincinnati’s re-restart included two matches over the past week. The results? A 3-0 loss to the 13th-place team in the East and a 0-0 draw with a D.C. United squad that’s won once over its past six games. Next up is a Saturday night date against the Columbus Crew, who sit first in the East and have pummeled FC Cincinnati by a combined score of 7-1 over the clubs’ past two meetings.
Prudence was necessary and rust should have been expected against D.C. United on August 21. It was FC Cincinnati’s first competitive affair in 24 days … after playing four matches in 18 days in the Orlando heat … after a four-month pandemic-induced shutdown during which the club hired yet another head coach. But four days later, FC Cincinnati were uninspired, sloppy, and looked very 2019-ish defensively in yielding three goals to the Chicago Fire, authors of a total of four goals in six 2020 matches entering last night’s contest.
Prior to the Chicago match, I wrote Do we have enough of a sample size at this time to proclaim FC Cincinnati’s defensive woes a thing of the past? in my notes. After all, FCC had turned in three clean sheets in a row and allowed just one goal over its past four matches. The answer arrived quickly last night, as the goals and chances came early and often. Fabian Herbers narrowly beat a haphazard offside trap by FCC’s back four in the second minute to push Chicago ahead. Offside was the original call, but VAR eventually ruled Herbers was in the clear. Eight minutes later, the score was 2-0 after a rocket from outside the box by Álvaro Medrán, and only a spectacular save by Przemyslaw Tytoń in the 16th minute prevented Chicago from making an early mockery of the proceedings. At halftime, Chicago had eight shots, three on target. FC Cincinnati had one shot, a lone “on target” effort via a weak header by Kendall Waston following a set piece.
Fouls are not the be-all, end-all measure of the requisite physicality needed to win, nor are they necessarily a crucial barometer to measure the influence one side has imposed on the other. Well, that particular stat told the whole story, as Chicago bullied FC Cincinnati in the first half, racking up eight fouls through 30 minutes. The Fire delivered the Orange and Blue a dose of roughhousing the visitors were evidently not expecting, and tactically Chicago possessed a firm grasp of FC Cincinnati’s new defensive strategy and eviscerated it.
In the second half, FC Cincinnati showed a stronger commitment to pressing and winning the ball back, spending more time in Chicago’s final third in the first five minutes of the second half than they did in the entire first 45 minutes. But any comeback hopes were dashed when poor defending gave way to Ignacio Alisedia’s score in the 67th minute, sealing FCC’s first defeat in league play since a 4-0 loss to Columbus in their MLS Is Back tournament opener.
As I stated earlier, FC Cincinnati’s return to regular season play last week against visiting D.C. United was a predictably choppy affair, with neither side impressing in a 0-0 draw. In the Orange and Blue’s first game at Nippert Stadium in nearly 11 months, the sides combined for three shots on goal, with little inspiration going forward and plenty of heavy touches. Jurgen Locadia had the chance of the match late in the second half when he clanged the left woodwork in the 84th minute after receiving a nice through ball from Allan Cruz. That miss rings louder considering last night’s result.
Look, the MLS restart isn’t easy on the players. Visiting teams are busing or flying in and out of match sites on game days as often as possible in an effort to limit potential COVID-19 exposure. FC Cincinnati’s first experience with this approach was less-than-ideal—the club was delayed leaving Cincinnati because of late test results and a GPS issue with their charter plane. They spent a few hours at a hotel, ate, and then went and played the game before flying home. Normally, the Orange and Blue would have spent at least one and probably two nights in Chicago, flying in the day before the match and most likely staying overnight following the game to allow for proper rest. But you know what: D.C. United performed under the similar circumstances last Friday and gutted out a road draw, while breaking out a brand-new formation.
The on-field dreariness over the last week was counteracted by positive player acquisition news. Last week, FC Cincinnati announced the signing of midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo. The 29-year-old South African international is a first-of-kind signing for the franchise: a ball-winning midfielder who can operate out of a No. 6 and/or a box-to-box role. Mokotjo should be able to sit in front of an improved FCC defense—last night notwithstanding—and erase mistakes, as well as provide additional cover for the squad’s back four, which, aside from left back Andrew Gutman, isn’t gifted with much pace.
FC Cincinnati released an in-depth analytical piece shortly after Mokotjo’s signing, detailing how his passing accuracy, final-third passes, possession-adjusted interceptions, and turnovers compare favorably to both his forthcoming MLS counterparts and his most recent competitors while playing for Brentford in England’s second division. By bringing in Mokotjo—who, naturally, has ties back to the Netherlands, having spent years playing in the Dutch Eredivisie—General Manager Gerard Nijkamp has wasted little time in using the open international slot he acquired after shipping winger Kekuta Manneth to New England on Aug. 17. It’s unclear when Mokotjo will make his debut, though.
Nijkamp isn’t done attempting to improve the roster, with FC Cincinnati reportedly tied to an exciting player from Argentina. (No, not that one.) Álvaro Barreal, a 20-year-old winger, may be moving to FC Cincinnati from the Argentine Primera División. Barreal would be more of a future play for the club, though it’s certainly not unreasonable to imagine he could impact the squad later this year as a substitute. FCC will either need to clear another international slot or have one of their current international players receive a Green Card in order to push this transfer over the line.
On the field, all is not lost. Following Saturday’s latest Hell Is Real derby, Chicago comes to town next week on September 2. We’ll see how Stam and the lads respond to their poor re-restart against one of MLS’s top sides and in a rematch vs. a team that’s obviously better than their record.