In FC Cincinnati’s 28th game of the season over the weekend, a would-be essential cog in the team’s success made just his eighth appearance of 2019. Eighth! FCC’s foray into Major League Soccer has been fraught with missteps and misadventures, but one of 2019’s unluckier developments was the long-term injury absence of left back Greg Garza.
When healthy, Garza’s quality is unquestioned. A former regular in Liga MX, the top division of Mexican soccer, he made 26 appearances for Atlanta United in 2017 and was named an All-Star. He was limited to 11 regular-season MLS contests in 2018 but was still invited to the U.S. men’s national team’s camp in January—Garza has 10 senior appearances for the Stars and Stripes—before departing with a quad injury.
After multiple injuries throughout this season, he finally appears fit again. He started last weekend’s 3-1 setback at FC Dallas and played 60 minutes, getting the call over Andrew Gutman, one of the FC Cincinnati’s exciting prospects. Gutman had started the team’s previous three matches after coming over from Scottish club Celtic on loan through 2020. An interesting development to follow over the season’s final six games is what happens with Garza and Gutman moving forward. Is Gutman now simply Garza’s backup? I’m not advocating for Gutman to play over Garza; the latter is a superior player. But could Gutman possibly play another position?
After FC’s Cincinnati draw vs. Columbus in the first Hell Is Real match, I floated the idea of Gutman playing midfield. I don’t consider myself a tactician on the level of Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp, but if I were Ron Jans I’d trot out Gutman as a midfielder in the team’s 4-3-3 lineup or as a wing back in a 3-5-2 (similar to what England did in the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup) to make use of its surplus of fullbacks and combat its dearth of creative midfielders. Gutman appeared comfortable getting forward in that game vs. Columbus, and despite playing as a defender at Indiana University he netted 20 goals and assisted on 17 others. During his senior year at IU, Gutman tallied 11 goals and nine assists as an outside back.
Garza surely would like to get back in the good graces of the U.S. squad, which takes the field Friday for the first time since its 1-0 loss in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final to Mexico on July 7. The Americans faces El Tri again on Friday, with much less meaningful stakes and (most likely) a much different starting XI. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore—two starters vs. Mexico in July and a pair of regulars for the U.S.—are sticking with their club team, Toronto FC, through the current international break. Toronto sits in the Eastern Conference’s seventh and final playoff spot, a point ahead of its continental rivals, Montreal. Fortunately for Bradley, Altidore & Co., they take on FC Cincinnati on Saturday night at Nippert Stadium, with the Orange and Blue having lost eight of its past nine matches.
FC Cincinnati was officially eliminated from postseason contention after its latest loss, but MLS still possesses plenty of playoff intrigue as the regular season winds down. Each of the East’s 10 non-Ohio teams has a puncher’s chance at the postseason. Philadelphia’s victory over Atlanta over the weekend vaulted it into first place in the East, but the race for first is far from over. The opposite is true in the West, as second-year franchise LAFC have quickly evolved into the league’s dominant force, racking up 62 points in 28 games—16 more than second-place Seattle. LAFC have a chance to break or tie the league record for regular-season points (71), set last season by New York Red Bulls. This could be the third year running that the points mark is broken (Toronto established the record with 69 points in 2017).