FC Cincinnati’s 4-3 home setback to CF Montreal last weekend was full of reminders. A reminder of the mistakes and mentality that have contributed to three successive last-place league finishes. A reminder of the progress made in 2022, albeit in fits and starts. And a reminder of how far the club has to go to reach contention, since it lacks both the talent and the maturity to handle even fleeting moments of success in the present.
On the two occasions FC Cincinnati grabbed a first-half lead on Saturday, it squandered the advantage less than five minutes later. And when FCC managed to level the proceedings in the second half, Keystone Cops-esque transition defending ceded the game-winning score six minutes later.
Afterwards, head coach Pat Noonan summed up the evening quite accurately, with the loss dropping his side to 2-0-4 on the season (wins-draws-losses; six points).
“That was an inconsistent performance from the coach down through the players. Not a lot of us today did our job,” said the first-year skipper. “I think we managed it really poorly and conceded goals in ways that, at this level, you just can’t. So, a lot of things to fix. I think this was a game that’s kind of indicative of where we’re at and how far we have to go. We’ll try to use it as a learning tool to be more consistent in our performances and our game management specifically.”
What was supposed to be a road tilt at Seattle this weekend has been postponed to late September due to the Sounders’ participation in the CONCACAF Champions League. The postponement is certainly a blessing for FC Cincinnati. The next time the Orange and Blue take the pitch will be April 16 at Atlanta (3-1-1; 10 points), General Manager Chris Albright may have added reinforcements to a team that looked dead-legged not long after halftime on Saturday.
CF Montreal arrived in Cincinnati with one point from four league games, but its league start could be attributed in part to its own participation in the CONCACAF Champions League. Montreal advanced to the quarterfinal round before being knocked out, forcing the club to play eight matches between February 15 and March 19. In Saturday’s contest, though, Montreal was coming off a bye weekend, providing it with fresh legs against FC Cincinnati.
Saturday started off well enough for the home side, with FC Cincinnati seizing a 12th-minute lead via Brandon Vazquez’s league-leading fifth goal. Everything about the score was exquisite: the perfectly placed long ball by Junior Moreno, the incredible first touch by Alvas Powell to settle the ball, and the calm, tidy finish by budding star Vazquez around Montreal goalkeeper Sebastian Breza.
Djorde Mihailovic, who terrorized FC Cincinnati’s defense and back line all evening, equalized five minutes later. Then Montreal gifted the hosts an own goal shortly thereafter. Vazquez was set free into acres of space via a lovely forward pass from Geoff Cameron. As he approached the goal, his intended pass for Dominique Badji was deflected by Montreal’s Alistair Johnston into the back of the net.
But, again, FCC failed to maintain its advantage. A Yuka Kubo turnover led to Mihailovic’s second goal, and veteran forward Kei Kamara—who was selected by FC Cincinnati in the 2018 expansion draft and immediately traded to Colorado—scored to inch the visitors ahead 3-2 in first-half stoppage time.
The first half was no-holds-barred soccer, with Montreal controlling possession but defending aimlessly in transition. The two teams combined for nine shots on goal and a handful of additional near-misses. Interviewed at halftime, Noonan said the last five minutes of the first half were “about as bad as it can be” for FC Cincinnati’s defense.
The start of the second half elicited more frenetic play. Powell won a penalty kick for FC Cincinnati in the 59th minute following a mazing run into the Montreal penalty area. Lucho Acosta converted from the spot two minutes later for his first goal of the season and the first score for FC Cincinnati in 2022 that hadn’t been scored or assisted by Vazquez.
Nooan then shifted systems, bringing in Brenner and Haris Medunjanin for Kubo and Nick Hagglund, shifting from what has become the coach’s preferred 3-5-2 formation to a 4-3-3, with Vazquez playing lead striker flanked by Brenner and Badji.
The game’s final goal arrived in the 67th minute. FC Cincinnati actually had a numbers advantage against a two-man Montreal counterattack by Kamara and Joaquin Torres, but the transition defense was so horrid that they were permitted to play give-and-go for the deciding score.
The end of the match reflected the thin state of FCC’s roster. Powell was forced off with cramping in the 76th minute, meaning left-footed winger Alvaro Barreal was subbed in to play right wing back. Badji, a forward, was tucked into a left back/left wingback role. Nonetheless, the hosts had three vital chances to escape with a draw in the match’s final 10 minutes. Moreno saw a well-taken curling effort go just over the bar in the 87th minute. Rookie Nick Markanich should have, at minimum, got his headed effort on target after Medujanin served him with a brilliant free-kick pass. Breza also notched a great save in the 94th minute to seal the match.
FC Cincinnati tallied 18 shots, seven on goal for the game. Montreal was more clinical, recording nine shots, six of which were on target, and scoring all four goals from open play.
I outlined last week the concern I had about FC Cincinnati’s squad depth, which worsened after Gustavo Vallecilla’s trade to Colorado and Ronald Mattarita’s ankle surgery. Midfielder Allan Cruz has been unavailable at various times for personal reasons, and he missed Saturday’s match after his sister passed away.
I also noted that Vallecilla’s trade could signal roster additions, and for the sake of the many sets of tired legs I witnessed on Saturday—including by players not accustomed to such a heavy workload this early in the season, and from a system that demands constant ball pressure—I hope Albright adds to the team.
Naturally, augmenting this current squad for short-term gain would be foolhardy, and management knows that. Albright must toe a precarious tightrope of balancing a multi-year project that he hopes will vault FCC into contention while also garnering enough results in 2022 to convince potential newcomers that this is a franchise worth committing to.
My money wouldn’t be on a Brenner-esque addition before April 16, but I’d be surprised if another midfielder or fullback didn’t join the fray before then.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.