Print the shirts: FC Cincinnati is going to slay all comers in 2022! OK, that’s pure hyperbole, but the Orange and Blue are coming off a strong preseason ahead of their season opener Saturday evening at Austin FC. Over two stints in Clearwater, Florida, FCC went 3-0-2 (wins-losses-draws) in five matches, including a win and two draws against fellow MLS sides Philadelphia, Nashville, and Orlando City. Head coach Pat Noonan correctly failed to get carried away after the seemingly positive string of performances, but it’s encouraging that FC Cincinnati wasn’t blown out in any of its preseason tilts—a regular occurrence in past years—in spite of the club failing to make any headline-grabbing personnel additions (yet).
Let’s take a closer look at the roster as it stands a few days before FC Cincinnati opens its 2022 campaign.
Noonan’s chief concern right now has to be getting Brenner, FCC’s $13 million man, up to speed after the forward missed all of the club’s Florida work-cation dealing with immigration issues in Brazil. Brenner returned to training this past Saturday, meaning the team’s leading scorer in 2021 (eight goals) will almost assuredly be a substitute for the first handful of games. The 22-year-old’s development is essential to the team’s present and future. He displayed impressive endurance in 2021 (appearing in 33 of 34 matches) but occasionally struggled with the physicality of MLS and also a lack of service from the midfield.
In Brenner’s stead to begin the year will likely be Brandon Vazquez, who notched 31 appearances but just six starts in 2021. The 22-year-old finished last season strong, scoring in three of the team’s final five contests. Also expect to see veteran Dom Badji (38 goals in 153 MLS appearances) net major minutes as well, as it’s possible that Noonan could experiment with a dual-striker formation.
Lucho Acosta, FC Cincinnati’s No. 10 and best player, will once again be the straw that stirs the attacking drink. He led the squad in assists (eight) and was second in goals (seven) in 2021, but there’s a feeling that he has more to give and that a more consistent playing structure balancing Acosta’s individual gifts with his tendency to over-dribble could lead to additional goals for both the player and the team.
Wide player Alvaro Barreal enters his third season with the club but is still just 21. Like Brenner, he was delayed entry to the U.S. and is behind his teammates in terms of conditioning and acclimation to Noonan’s system. Barreal has youth on his side, but with four goals and three assists in nearly 3,000 MLS minutes, more end product is needed from the young Argentine.
Calvin Harris, the second overall selection in the 2021 SuperDraft, logged no meaningful statistics in his 16 matches over his rookie season, which was interrupted by knee surgery for nearly four months. Just 21, he surely has a key role to play for Noonan going forward, but given Harris’ lack of game action it’s difficult to know what his best position is at this time.
Yuya Kubo, an attacking midfielder/winger by trade, played out of position in 2021 to aid FC Cincinnati’s dearth of midfield talent. Thus, despite scoring more than 50 goals in his club career, he recorded zero last season, though he was among the league leaders in tackles won. If the preseason is any indication, the Designated Player has been granted more license to get forward in 2022, as Noonan recognizes the need for Kubo’s offensive talent.
Isaac Atanga was a bit of an overlooked signing last year, starting in 12 of his 22 games. The 21-year-old is known for his pace but needs to round out his technical ability in order to be a consistent MLS regular.
FC Cincinnati reportedly solved its No. 6 (defensive midfielder) conundrum on Wednesday. Well, maybe not solved, but at least added a capable body. The Washington Post reported that D.C. United was sending the rights to midfielder Junior Moreno to FC Cincinnati for “up to” $425,000 in allocation money ($250,000 up front and $175,000 in performance-based incentives). FCC has not yet announced if it’s signed Moreno to a contract.
Moreno had not been training with D.C. United, and the 28-year-old gradually lost playing time as the 2021 season wore on. Like Brenner and Barreal, Moreno—presuming he inks a deal with FCC—will require at least a handful of matches to get into something resembling game shape.
Nonetheless, General Manager Chris Albright has found his No. 6, at least in the short-term. Moreno, a former teammate of Acosta at United, was a regular with the Venezuelan national team during its CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying efforts. Having joined D.C. United in 2018, he has 97 MLS appearances and nearly 8,000 minutes under his belt.
Last season, Moreno ranked in the 75th percentile of players in progressive passes and tackles and in the 86th percentile in clearances. On paper, FC Cincinnati have added much more bite, technique, and attitude in their midfield—all three traits that are long overdue for the Orange and Blue. And since Moreno has a green card, he wouldn’t occupy a precious international spot, which are typically reserved for higher-profile Designated Player signings.
The other deep-lying midfield options include the ageless Haris Medunjanin. The soon-to-be 37-year-old has ample tread on his tires and isn’t much help to FC Cincinnati’s defense, but he can still spray the ball around the field and orchestrate the team’s attack. As long as he’s insulated by more athletic midfielders who are willing to defend—a big if for the Orange and Blue—Medunjanin has a role to play on this team.
As for Allan Cruz, I don’t have the slightest clue on what to expect from the 25-year-old midfielder. I’m not sure what his best midfield position is, and after establishing himself as a mainstay in the club’s inaugural 2019 campaign—and earning a contract extension after scoring a club-best seven goals—he’s regressed over the past two seasons. In 2021, Cruz scored just once in 29 scoring attempts.
The likely starting back four is Ronald Matarrita at left back, Tyler Blackett and Geoff Cameron at center back, and a rotation of Alvas Powell and Ray Gaddis at right back. Gustavo Vallecilla will work his way into the starting lineup at center back often, especially since the 36-year-old Cameron was over-used in 2021. Nick Hagglund’s aerial ability at center back is a nice option to have for both chasing goals and protecting leads.
John Nelson provides depth at left back, while Zico Bailey is another option at right back after the 21-year-old started nine games in 2021. The club needs to acquire younger and more talented players on the back line, but it seems like that process won’t happen in 2022, at least not right away.
Longtime Atlanta United backup Alec Kann is the presumed starter over Kenneth Vermeer between the sticks, and he should be a sizable shot-stopping upgrade. Kann’s success will also, of course, be tied to the improvement of players and structure in front of him.
Vermeer, 36, garnered plenty of run last year (19 starts) and is in line to back up Kann. I’m interested to see what FC Cincinnati does with Roman Celentano, the No. 2 overall pick in the most recent draft. It’s likely he’s sent out on loan, but Celentano reportedly held his own in preseason play.
What to expect in 2022
Here’s my predicted starting XI for Austin: Kann; Matarrita, Blackett, Cameron, Gaddis; Medunjanin, Kubo, Acosta; Harris, Atanga, Vazquez. Remember that Brenner, Barreal, and Moreno—three presumed starters—are virtual locks to be on the bench Saturday. And the team that takes the field in Austin will look different in April; Albright has moves left to improve the roster, trim some of the remaining salary fat, or add some badly needed depth.
As for season expectations, FC Cincinnati should keep its goals simple. Hold onto late leads. Limit the needless giveaways in transition and the avoidable fouls around its own penalty area. Don’t get shut out 12 times for the second successive season. Let some other squad have the MLS Wooden Spoon and concede the most goals and put the fewest balls in the back of the net. The sooner the Orange and Blue can end the 12-match losing streak that carries over from last season, the better.
TQL Stadium heads into its second season, and the club recently unveiled new uniforms for 2022, so ownership is still trying to sell the sizzle of MLS to local fans. But it’s been refreshing to hear—at least to this point—zero proclamations from FCC’s front office about hopelessly chasing the postseason. This year should be about simply taking a big step toward becoming a respectable MLS franchise.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.