FC Cincinnati Rides Luck, Titi to Season-Opening Draw

After a shockingly good first 12 minutes in Nashville, FCC needed its heroic goalkeeper to single-handedly save the match.

At some point during the second half of last weekend’s match at Nashville, FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Przemysław Tytoń probably felt like he was the lone wolf in a 1 vs. 11 paintball match. Shot after shot came his way, and 11 out of 13 times the 6-foot-5 “Titi” blocked, punched, or otherwise prevented soccer ball-sized paintballs from finding the back of the net. Basically, the Polish Eagle was on a Tim Howard vs. Belgium in the World Cup run. And because of his career night—his 11 saves were the most by an MLS goalie since D.C. United’s Bill Hamid had 12 in October 2019—and, if we’re being honest, a wheelbarrow full of good fortune, FCC escaped with a 2-2 draw in its 2021 season opener.

The Orange and Blue’s opening roadshow to 2020 playoff teams continues Saturday afternoon at New York City FC. The club then takes on Orlando City the following weekend, before enjoying a week off prior to opening the newly-dubbed TQL Stadium on May 16.

FC Cincinnati’s performance against Nashville was startling for two reasons: how great it looked while sprinting to a 2-0 advantage after 12 minutes, and how bad it looked for the remainder of the game. Last year, Nashville allowed the third-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference (22 in 23 games). Its back line is helmed by reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, who was also named to MLS’s Best XI in 2020. The 27-year-old has been one of the league’s best at his position for many years now—he was an MLS Best XI designee in 2019 with Los Angeles FC—and has 162 career MLS games under his belt. This was going to be a stiff first challenge for Brenner and Luciano Acosta, FCC’s two headline offensive additions, with the former appearing in his first-ever MLS contest.

Not so fast. Acosta scored in the game’s eighth minute, finishing off a beautiful give-and-go with left back Ronald Matarrita, another FCC newcomer. Seconds later, Brenner won a penalty after catching Nashville keeper Joe Willis lingering too long on the ball and drawing a foul. The 21-year-old cooly slotted his penalty just past the outstretched arms of Willis to cap off the visitors’ dream start. FC Cincinnati had scored multiple goals in a road match for the first time since the 2020 season opener at New York Red Bulls, and they’d done it with their two prized signings.

Apparently, it was time for FC Cincinnati to hit cruise control, because the game immediately flipped. And while any reasonable fan or neutral observer would have expected Nashville to up their game, the surprise was that FCC engaged in completely panicked soccer the rest of the match.

I don’t know if the squad abandoned the game plan. I don’t know if they didn’t have the means to implement their game plan because the roster, particularly down the spine, remains a bit of a mess. I don’t know if head coach Jaap Stam tried to change his tactics, or if his players were incapable of incorporating adjustments he desired. But after FC Cincinnati scored its second goal, it started playing unorganized kickball instead of soccer. And because of Titi’s herculean effort—which landed him a place on MLS’s Team of the Week—and the unorthodox but effective play of center backs Tom Pettersson and Nick Hagglund, the Orange and Blue escaped with a point.

The final statistics are jarring….
Shots: Nashville 32, FC Cincinnati 7
Shots in the box: Nashville 24, FC Cininnati 5
Shots on goal: Nashville 13, FC Cincinnati 2
Corners: Nashville 14, FC Cincinnati 1

Again, it wasn’t surprising to see Nashville respond and respond quickly after shockingly going down 2-0. Despite being an expansion side in 2020, Nashville finished seventh in the East—turns out it’s possible to build a competent expansion team—and won two playoff games before being knocked out of the postseason by the Columbus Crew, the eventual MLS Cup champions. They can ball a little bit in Music City.

And it wasn’t astonishing to witness FCC’s midfield gutted by virtually every Nashville attack. The Yuya Kubo-as-a-No. 8-experiment was a disaster. It’s not the attacking winger’s fault; he was shoehorned into a position that Stam thought he could play, and it just didn’t work. (Having Frankie Amaya and his biting tackles and physical ball-winning would have been nice in this game, eh?)

Also, defensive midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo was often dropped back into a third center back role when FCC had possession in its own half, dragging Kubo further down into the middle of the park. It’s possible that Stam thought Kubo could distribute from deep by kicking the ball out wide, using the speed of the fullbacks (Matarrita, Joe Gyau) who could then funnel the ball back into Acosta and Brenner and let the dynamic duo work their magic. That plan failed.

The blame wasn’t entirely with the midfield. Matarrita and Gyau often let their attacking instincts get the best of them, and they were routinely chasing the ball and/or Nashville wingers. Gyau, a converted right winger/attacking winger, was a frequent target of Nashville attacks due to his inexperience at right back and as a one-on-one defender in the defensive third of the pitch.

Nashville were damning the torpedoes so hard—nearly 40 percent of the match was played in FC Cincinnati’s third of the field—that the visitors had more than their share of counterattacking opportunities. But when the opportunity arrived, so did backwards passes to nowhere, wayward passes that stunted odd-man advantages, and potential chance-creating passes that were never even seen by some FCC players. The front three of Brenner, Acosta, and rookie Calvin Harris (Jurgen Locadia wasn’t fit to start but came on as a sub) were separated from the match as soon as Brenner scored. The entire team needed a collective “woosah” but their pants were full of too many ants to calm down and string together simple passing combinations.

Having said all of that, I believe this unit deserves a bit of grace. Like many other media observers, I don’t believe FC Cincinnati will start to play its best soccer until June or July. The squad has too many new pieces (again), lacks viable MLS starters in certain positions, and is woefully thin. I think General Manager Gerard Nijkamp will add reinforcements either before the Primary Transfer Window ends on June 1 or soon after the Secondary Transfer Window opens on July 7.

Quite obviously, FC Cincinnati can’t expect to get away with a win or draw very often if it yields 30 shots a game. The previous two seasons are proof of that, and with far fewer takes on the net by the opposition. I’d like to see Allan Cruz or Haris Mudunjanin, two natural midfielders, in the No. 8 role over Kubo, who looked like he picked up a knock right before he was subbed off on Saturday anyway. Let’s see what adjustments Stam and his staff make against what will be an NYCFC side that keeps the ball (second in MLS in possession last year). And let’s see if FCC can keep their wits about them for more than 12 minutes.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Off the pitch, he is the managing editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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