FC Cincinnati’s Future Is Set … for Three Weeks

Home games at Nippert Stadium will not have fans for the first three matches. The rest of the season schedule will be announced later.

At last there’s some certainty for FC Cincinnati’s return to a “normal” regular season schedule. One of the surprises of the MLS Is Back tournament—won last week by Portland, the team that knocked FCC out in the Round of 16—the Orange and Blue (6 points, 8th in the East) will resume their 2020 regular season by hosting D.C. United (5 points) Friday night at Nippert Stadium.

 

The rest of the known schedule is as follows:
August 25 at Chicago Fire (4 points)
August 29 vs. (gulp!) Columbus Crew (13 points)
September 2 vs. Chicago
September 6 at Columbus
September 12 at New York City FC (3 points)

Both D.C. United and Chicago finished last in their MLS Is Back groups. Like FC Cincinnati, Columbus lost in penalties in the Round of 16, while NYCFC reached the quarterfinals before being eliminated by—you guessed it—Portland. The remainder of the regular-season slate is expected to be announced by early September, with MLS yearning for each squad to complete 23 regular season tilts by November 8 before the postseason begins November 20.

This initial schedule is favorable and, if properly managed, should keep FC Cincinnati on track for one of the East’s nine playoff spots. D.C. United and Chicago do not inspire fear. It’s difficult to get a read on NYCFC, but they won’t have the comfort of playing in their home ballpark—a literal ballpark, Yankee Stadium—and will instead have to play at the New York Red Bulls’ arena in New Jersey. As for Columbus, the scars from the recent Hell Is Real derby will linger until FC Cincinnati records a respectable result against its northern rivals, but FCC are a far more organized outfit—with a clear defensive identity—now than they were on July 11 when the Crew stole their lunch money in a 4-0 beating.

But is FCC’s “defense-first, defense-second” approach and the 3-5-2 formation here to stay? General Manager Gerard Nijkamp was coy in his answer to that question last week. Most crucially, a formation alteration depends on whether Jurgen Locadia is fit to start. When FC Cincinnati’s $10-ish million dollar man came on late vs. Portland, the team shifted to a 4-3-3. Fretting over the exact formation is likely a fool’s errand; it’s fine to enact a defense-first system when you lack the personnel to play your desired build-from-the-back set-up, but FCC need to be more adventurous going forward than they were at MLS Is Back regardless of head coach Jaap Stam’s formation of choice.

One bit of news you might have missed recently was the opening of MLS’s readjusted secondary transfer window, which closes October 29. Revised because of COVID-19, the window—originally slated for July 7 through August 5—allows FC Cincinnati to add reinforcements to a squad that, despite its relative success in Orlando, requires both supplementation and the subtraction of unneeded parts (more on that in a second). Last week, Nijkamp stated that he was searching for pace on the wings, midfield help, and another defensive starter while also tempering expectations about a move of any kind.

Complicating matters for FC Cincinnati was that it only had one roster slot open and zero international slots available—but that was before Monday’s action. In a pair of trades, out went winger Kekutah Manneh (New England Revolution) and midfielder Fatai Alashe (Columbus Crew), with the former bringing back an international slot and the Crew sending a 2021 second round draft pick—and potentially $50,000 in General Allocation Money if certain performance metrics are met—for Alashe. The trades now mean that FC Cincinnati’s first two signings as an MLS franchise (Alashe, Fanendo Adi) now play for Columbus. Both Manneh and Alashe had become bench/depth pieces of late, with Alashe notching just 25 minutes this year and Manneh registering only 53 minutes under Stam.

Now, with an open international slot, Nijamp can get work on presumably pursuing foreign help. The latest scuttlebutt has centered around three players. Tyler Blackett, a defender, wound up signing with Nottingham Forest of England’s second division over the weekend. Mario Götze, who’s spent the entirety of his senior career playing for Germany’s top two clubs (Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund), has seen his career slump since he scored the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup Final. And yet Götze has plenty to give at 28, though his position as a forward/advanced midfielder in a squad that already has expensive attacking players in Locadia, Yuya Kubo, and Siem de Jong would seem to be a misallocation of resources. Finally, The Enquirer reported Tuesday night that Kamohelo Mokotjo, a 29-year-old defensive midfielder with extensive Dutch Eredivisie experience, was in talks with FC Cincinnati. Mokotjo spent the past three years at Brentford, an English second division side that just missed out on promotion to the Premier League for next season.

Thanks to COVID-19, MLS teams are in a strange spot with regard to roster evaluation. Naturally, they’d all like to recruit help for the stretch run. Having said that, it’s the third week of August and most teams have only played five or so games—they haven’t taken the field enough to gauge their current squads. Some teams may pull the trigger on risky moves for the present; others may make moves for 2021 and beyond. FC Cincinnati will likely pursue the middle avenue of those two scenarios, but, hey, it’s 2020. Who knows what will happen?

As Major League Soccer exits its bubble form and assumes a shape similar to that of Major League Baseball, it’s certainly worth noting the house-of-cards potential of this regular season restart. The plan is very much contingent on the players and the teams’ respective traveling parties adhering to strict COVID-19 prevention measures apart from the league-imposed testing. Teams will reportedly bus to games, and fly in and out on game days when possible to avoid hotel stays. MLS is also allowing teams to dictate whether fans can attend matches in accordance with local health regulations. It’s a roll of the dice by MLS Commissioner Don Garber, but one that, of course, comes down to money. Clubs are going to miss out on the majority or all of home game revenue in 2020, so every penny counts for franchises that don’t wield nearly the financial muscle of their MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL counterparts. FC Cincinnati has already said it will not permit fans to attend its first three home matches.

Beginning Friday, there will be plenty for FC Cincinnati fans to track as MLS re-restarts. Test results. Potential signings. Tactics. Star player availability. Cheers to a safe return to play, everyone.

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

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