A week ago, I wrote that FC Cincinnati’s 2-2 draw with Columbus had been a disappointing but not a disastrous result, despite blowing a two-goal advantage at home and playing up a man for most of the match. A week later, the aforementioned disastrous result was achieved. After a shambolic defensive display in Montreal during which FCC blew a pair of two-goal leads in a 5-4 setback, the club faces a crucial week: two matches in four days, one tonight against a desperate Atlanta side that just fired its coach and a road tilt Saturday night in Nashville, which boasts a potent offense and the second-best goal differential in the East (plus-7).
No reasonable FC Cincinnati supporter would have expected Jaap Stam’s side to turn in its top performance Saturday night, not with an already-thin-on-talent roster down three starters in midfielders Allan Cruz and Ronald Matarrita (international duty) and steady center back Geoff Cameron (border restrictions). And with the match being suddenly switched from Ft. Lauderdale, where Montreal has played its home tilts in 2021, to Montreal, FCC had to send four members of the team to New York City last Tuesday to obtain visas for the visit to Canada.
The midweek shenanigans seemed to have no effect on FC Cincinnati at the start of the match, as it scored twice in the first 16 minutes thanks to aggressive ball pressure, with the scores coming from Haris Medunjanin sweeping the ball into the corner of the net and Brenner swiping the ball off Montreal goalkeeper James Pantemis’s feet. Montreal was unfazed, though, hitting the crossbar and the post within the game’s first 10 minutes, and once more before halftime. By that point, the hosts had already tied the game, with the second goal coming after a goalkeeping error (Kenneth Vermeer spilled a shot onto the feet of Joaquin Torres). Gustavo Vallecilla flicked in a set-piece goal just before halftime to give FCC a 3-2 lead.
FC Cincinnati again went up two goals just after halftime, with Brenner calmly slotting home a pass from Alvaro Barreal in the 46th minute. Disaster struck over the game’s final 26 minutes, though. For some unknown reason, Vermeer came way, way off his line and made contact with Mason Toye, surrendering an eventual converted penalty that wound up being Montreal’s third goal in the 72nd minute. After that, the hosts’ fourth and fifth goals were the result of heinous defending by the Orange and Blue, whose 3-5-2 formation never struck the right chord and led to 10 Montreal shots on target.
The four-straight-games-unbeaten vibes have been extinguished, and now FC Cincinnati (12 points from 12 matches, 11th in the East) faces off tonight against a rudderless Atlanta side (13 points from 13 matches, 10th in the East) that hasn’t won in more than two months. This past Sunday, Atlanta, a once-proud Eastern power, fired head coach Gabirel Heinze less than half a season into his first year at the club and is now on its fourth coach (including two caretaker managers) in 12 months. (It wasn’t long ago that FC Cincinnati was the standard for a revolving door at head coach.) Heinze, whose practice regimen and personnel management were reportedly downright dastardly, and star forward Josef Martinez were famously at loggerheads, with the latter benched and ordered to train separately from the team.
Now FCC will be dealing with a surely rejuvenated—and, at the very least, a well-hydrated—Atlanta side that maintains ample talent and will likely have Martinez back in the lineup for the first time since May 29. Factor in the Orange and Blue’s struggles at TQL Stadium (three losses and one draw in four matches) and a national television audience (the game will be broadcast by Fox Sports 1), and the pressure is on Stam to steady a shaky ship.
Stam will get Cameron back in the fold but will have to make do without two-thirds of his starting midfield, with Cruz still out and Yuya Kubo (third on the team in minutes played) missing the game through suspension for yellow card accumulation. FCC badly, badly needs a victory tonight, particularly with a road date looming in Nashville on the weekend.
FCC managed a draw in the teams’ respective season opener back in mid-April, but Nashville frankly deserved the win after outshooting FC Cincinnati 31-7 (13-2 on target). That Nashville offense hasn’t slowed down either; the club is tied for second in the East in goals scored, and midfielder Hany Mukhtar notched a hat trick in six minutes vs. Chicago last weekend. Nabbing a point from Nashville (22 points in 13 matches, fifth in the East) will be a tall task.
We’ll see some of Stam’s coaching chops this week. Will he adjust his formation after failing to retain any semblance of possession (only 32 percent last weekend) vs. Montreal? Will there be any squad rotation (perhaps a change at goalkeeper?) given the quick turnaround tonight, or will Stam stick with his known quantities like he did during the successful three-games-in-eight-days road trip? FC Cincinnati is not yet halfway through its 2021 campaign, but mini-stretches like this week are often where entire seasons can slip off the rails.