After FC Cincinnati’s midweek 0-0 draw with Philadelphia and 4-0 loss at New York City FC over the weekend, it’s time we started talking seriously about the club’s hapless offense. More specifically, it’s time to talk about how Jurgen Locadia, Yuya Kobo, and Siem de Jong—the club’s prized offseason acquisitions who were supposed to improve the league’s worst offense—have combined for three goals and zero assists. The hype has not delivered, as the Orange and Blue once again own the league’s most rubbish attack. In 2019, FCC had 11 goals through its first 14 league games. This year, it has eight. The club is tied for last in MLS in shots on goal, too.
So what the hell happened? Let’s start with Locadia. In early February, FC Cincinnati successfully convinced Locadia—and Brighton & Hove Albion, the Premier League side that owns the striker’s rights—to come stateside on loan. He sputtered with his scoring in England and Germany over the past few seasons, but not too long ago he dominated for PSV Eindhoven: 62 goals and 39 assists across 176 appearances. Locadia broke Brighton’s transfer record when he moved from the Dutch Eredivisie, and he’s still earning his Premier League wages while playing for FCC. Locadia’s arrival was a massive PR victory for the club and (seemingly) a coup for General Manager Gerard Nijkamp, who helped convince his fellow Dutchman to join him in the U.S.
Locadia began well for FC Cincinnati, scoring in his debut/the club’s first game of the year despite barely practicing for then-coach Yoann Damet’s side. He started the club’s next game, and then came the four-month COVID-19 shutdown. Locadia then suffered an injury that forced him to miss all of the club’s MLS Is Back matches, save for a late cameo in FCC’s tournament-ending loss to Portland. He came on as a second-half substitute and looked the part, converting a penalty to tie the game in the 81st minute. However, six minutes later the striker missed a wide-open goal that could have sealed advancement to the final eight. During the penalty kick round, Locadia’s weak attempt was saved, and since then it’s been an incredible run of poor luck and finishing from the 6-foot-2 target man.
Locadia has started all nine of FC Cincinnati’s post-MLS Is Back regular season games, going the full 90 minutes in all but one match. He’s logged strong defensive shifts, done well enough with hold-up play and generally played his role well in Jaap Stam’s conservative, defense-first setup. And after a three-match stretch in late August to early September when he fired only just shot, Locadia has notched 17 shots over FCC’s past four games, but only two have been on goal. Since the regular-season restart, I’ve made mention and linked to videos showing Locadia fluffing clear chances and also being the victim of great goalkeeping.
In 910 minutes this year, Locadia has 32 shots (eight on target) and one goal. Locadia publicly addressed his struggles in early September. “I put pressure on myself every game and I’m there to provide goals, to score goals. So I know [what] my job is and I’m pissed off when I don’t score a goal, like for two days or one day after the game. So I put a lot of pressure on myself and when it doesn’t go [how] I want it’s hard for me to not be agitated.”
Locadia’s loan deal originally was set to expire July 5, about a week prior to FC Cincinnati’s first MLS Is Back group stage game. FCC, Brighton, and Locadia agreed to extend the loan through June 30 of next year. The Orange and Blue retain a permanent transfer option for the 26-year-old Designated Player, which would extend his contract with the club through 2023 if activated.
Odds are that the dam will break at some point for Locadia. But will he start scoring at a rate that matches his wages? If not, will Nijamp admit defeat and reallocate those resources elsewhere for a team that needs improvement in many places, and especially after a season that could potentially (likely?) to produce zero home game revenue? Ownership will certainly have a say in that matter. There’s a lot of time between now and next June, including the opening of the West End Stadium in March. But at present it’s difficult to envision a scenario of how this deal for FC Cincinnati—so invigorating for the fanbase, so well-intentioned by the front office, and seemingly a shrewd bit of business—could have gone worse to this point.
So, yes, Locadia is the easy target. He’s the best player on the team, and he should be doing better. But he’s not the only underperforming attacking signing. Yuya Kubo, signed as a Designated Player in January, is actually FC Cincinnati’s leading scorer with two goals, but his season has been a mixed bag. That inconsistency is in line with his past few years, something I wrote about Kubo when he signed on:
The good: Kubo has 86 goals across 10 seasons playing in four countries. He’s got ample big-time European and international experience, having played in the Champions League and in World Cup qualifiers. The 26-year-old retains the ball in tight spaces and packs a flair for attack that FC Cincinnati desperately required in 2019.
The bad: Kubo has scored just once in 23 appearances this season after notching a single goal across the 2018-19 campaign. He also hasn’t played for Japanese national team in nearly two years. Kubo isn’t exactly in form, and moreover he’s not the type of player who will routinely carry FC Cincinnati offensively for long stretches.
With Stam switching to a 3-5-2 after the Columbus debacle in the MLS Is Back opener, Kubo has found himself A) at the top of a two-person front line when Locadia was injured, playing with the since-departed Adrien Regattin, or B) stationed deeper in the midfield and engaging in long stretches of contributing to tiring team defense rather than asserting his natural talent, which is offensive creativity. After starting 11 of FC Cincinnati’s first 12 games, Kubo has come on as a sub in the past two matches. Like Locadia, there’s still time for him to make an impact, especially for someone who no doubt would like to reinsert himself into candidacy for selection to the Japanese national team.
Then there’s Siem de Jong, a 31-year-old Dutch attacking midfielder who Nijkamp stated was brought on to “play an important role in adding to the final third and efficiency of our attack.” That hasn’t happened. For one, de Jong’s talents are built around the 4-3-3 that FC Cincinnati abandoned. Two, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy; he’s played in eight games, failing to go 90 minutes in any match. The former Ajax standout has had a long, distinguished career, but it seems like the miles are catching up to him fast, with the turf surfaces in America doing him no favors. Furthermore, de Jong’s ideal role as an attacking midfielder who sits behind a front line and opens up the last third of defenses with through balls and heady dribbling just isn’t feasible with the way FCC play at present. It would be honestly shocking if he was retained in 2021.
Now, all of this analysis must be caveated with the simple fact that quite obviously 2020 has not been a normal year for the club. In 2019, FC Cincinnati was routinely playing with four or five days off between games. In 2020, FCC is more often than not playing twice a week, with the league determined to have the playoffs begin on Nov. 20. Like every other MLS squad, the Orange and Blue went four months without playing a competitive match because of COVID-19, and then it had a three and a half week lull in games post-MLS Is Back. This year has wrought another season of coaching and formation changes, with another poorly constructed roster. Chaos has again reigned supreme in the Queen City.
Following the blowout loss to NYCFC, Stam noted post-game that he still sees heads drop from his players in trying moments, even though there’s been improvement on that front. Perhaps there is an opportunity Saturday night on the road vs. Minnesota United, which is winless over its past four matches.
FC Cincinnati’s high-profile attacking signings aren’t totally responsible for the club’s inept offense, but it’s fair to expect more of them. After all, the season is winding down and the playoffs are becoming less realistic with each passing scoreless draw or outright defeat.