Yours truly was mere minutes away from filing a column lamenting FC Cincinnati’s failure to add players over its bye weekend when the Twitter rumors bore fruit Wednesday morning. And while the club certainly received some bad news with regard to a key player’s injury timeline, the roster got a boost from midfielder Obinna Nwobodo being announced as General Manager Chris Albright’s first Designated Player signing.
The 25-year-old, known as an aggressive, ball-winning midfielder, arrives from Göztepe S.K. of the Turkish Süper Lig, where he ranked first in the league in tackles, ball recoveries, and pressures this season. Once Nwobodo receives his P-1 Visa and International Transfer Certificate, he will slot into FC Cincinnati’s starting midfield, likely functioning as a No. 6 (defensive midfielder) and No. 8 (central midfielder).
“[Nwobodo’s] overall quality will complement our group, while his work-rate and defensive presence in midfield are both exceptional,” Albright said in a team press release. “Obi is also a dedicated teammate with a character that fits what we’re trying to build. I’d like to thank our ownership group as they continue to demonstrate their commitment to this club.”
FC Cincinnati reportedly bought down Yuya Kubo’s salary to bring in Nwobodo as a DP and paid a $3 million transfer fee. The Nigerian immediately becomes a critical component of the club’s present and future, signing a contract through 2024 with a club option for 2025. FCC has apparently been hot on Nwobodo’s trail for a while, with Albright flying multiple times to Turkey to see him play. “Obinna is an elite ball-winning midfielder that adds a different dynamic to our team,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said in the same press release. “His ability to break up plays, combined with his forward-first mentality, make him an excellent addition to our group.”
Nwobodo won’t be ready in time to play this weekend, however, so the same threadbare unit that limped into its break on a two-match losing streak will take the field Saturday evening in Atlanta. But since its 4-3 setback to Montreal on April 2, FCC received the worst news possible regarding injured left back/winger Ronald Matarrita: The 27-year-old Costa Rican international will likely be sidelined for the rest of the season following left ankle surgery.
Matarrita suffered the injury playing for Ticos on March 24. It’s a horrible break for everyone involved. Through 175 minutes with FC Cincinnati in 2022, he’d delivered a goal and an assist, providing a tertiary offensive option behind an attack entirely reliant on MLS goals co-leader Brandon Vazquez and Lucho Acosta, tied for the league lead with 23 key passes.
Matarrita will miss Costa Rica’s win-or-go-home World Cup qualifying playoff match in June. And should Costa Rica prevail then, he faces a race against time to be fit for the onset of the World Cup on November 20.
Speaking of injuries, star Atlanta striker Josef Martinez is out for six to eight weeks following right knee surgery. He missed all but one game in 2020 after tearing his ACL in the same knee. The 2018 league MVP had registered two goals and two assists in five matches for the Five Stripes, who sit fourth in the East standings.
Atlanta is battling a full-on injury breakout, having already lost veteran midfielder Ozzie Alonso for the season due to a torn ACL. Midfielder/winger Thiago Almada, signed for an MLS-record fee of $16 million in February, is nursing a hamstring injury. A handful of other players are also battling muscle injuries. FC Cincinnati has an opportunity to grab a point on the road Saturday, as Atlanta struggled to create goal-scoring chances sans Martinez in a 1-0 loss to expansion side Charlotte FC over the weekend.
In other FC Cincinnati news, Brenner reportedly wants out. According to Queen City Press, FC Cincinnati’s record signing has sought a season-long loan move to Brazil in order to gain regular playing time. After missing almost all of FC Cincinnati’s preseason and then dealing with a minor injury, Brenner has appeared in four matches but is yet to start a game. The 22-year-old striker is third in the pecking order behind Vazquez, who has been one of the league’s top players, and veteran Dominique Badji, who’s developed a good partnership with Vazquez in Noonan’s two-striker setup.
Albright reportedly had no intention of granting Brenner’s request before the transfer window in Brazil closed on Tuesday—and rightfully so. Brenner has yet to notch a goal or an assist in 112 minutes played, but he’s shown well coming off the bench, and starts are coming. Badji has already played almost 100 more minutes than he did in all of 2021, while Vazquez will cross his 2021 minutes played mark sometime over the club’s next three to four matches.
Brenner will receive his opportunities, and FC Cincinnati are well within their rights to stay committed to their biggest investment. And again, this roster is already thin. It needs additions, not subtractions.
Another bit of positive news is FC Cincinnati’s return to the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament the franchise has enjoyed success in with nine wins in 14 matches. The 2017 run to the tournament’s semifinals is considered the club’s greatest success, a memorable march that included a 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew—coached by current U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter—and the “Mitch Says No” penalty shootout triumph over Chicago Fire before a delirious crowd of 32,000-plus at Nippert Stadium.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 tournament, and the 2021 iteration was abandoned on April 16, the same day the MLS season began. FC Cincinnati’s last Cup match was a 1-0 Round of 16 setback to USL Championship team Saint Louis FC in 2019.
The Orange and Blue will host the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the USL Championship, a familiar foe for the franchise during its minor league days, on April 19. A Pittsburgh player of interest is winger/forward Russell Cicerone, who suited up for FC Cincinnati in 2018 and played a starring role in Saint Louis’s upset win in 2019.
As for Saturday’s tilt down south, expect Noonan to trot out his preferred XI of Alec Kann in goal; Tyler Blackett, Geoff Cameron, and Nick Hagglund at center back; Ray Gaddis and Alvas Powell at wing back; Junior Moreno, Kubo, and Acosta in midfield; and Vazquez and Badji at forward. It’s a reasonable approach given everyone has had time to rest their legs following the poor showing vs. Montreal.
Albright said Wednesday that FC Cincinnati is “actively looking to add pieces” ahead of the Primary Transfer Window’s closure on May 4, so additional reinforcements could be coming along with Nwobodo. Keep an eye out for another midfielder, a fullback, and/or possibly a central defender to be signed before early May.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.