Is FC Cincinnati’s Defense Finding Solid Ground?

An odd couple at center back and outstanding goaltending have steadied FCC’s nerves heading into a three-week schedule break.

Even though FC Cincinnati has conceded 15 goals in six matches this season, the most in Major League Soccer, a consistent structure in recent matches combined with some new faces netting major playing time could have the Orange and Blue on the road to a solid defense. Scoring only six goals in six matches isn’t going to cut it all year, but let’s table a discussion on the offense for another time.

 

In FCC’s 1–0 loss to the New England Revolution last Saturday, Geoff Cameron and Gustavo Vallecilla started at center back for the third consecutive game. With the club playing a 3–5–2 again, Caleb Stanko started as the third center back for the second successive game. And for the third straight match, Allan Cruz started over Kamohelo Mokotjo in the midfield and goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer played over Przemysław Tytoń.

Against the high-powered Revolution, that defense conceded 26 shots, but only six were on target. That’s a ton of shots, but just one found the back of the net. Moreover, New England sits atop the Eastern Conference (17 points) for a reason—the club has scored the second-most goals in the East. The Revolution, who advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, have perhaps the league’s MVP to this point in Carles Gil. He entered Saturday’s match first in MLS in assists (tied), key passes, expected assists, shots created via passes, and other metrics that illustrate just how much of a terror the 28-year-old is to opposing defenses at the moment. On Saturday, Gil dominated the first half (eight chances created) and notched an assist on the match’s lone goal in the 70th minute.

How the partnership of Cameron and Vallecilla at center back develops is going to be one of FCC’s defining storylines this season. The TQL Stadium opener a few weeks back was essentially the first time they’d shared extended minutes on a soccer pitch, whether that be on a practice field or a match. They’ve now logged 269 minutes together, including going the distance in each of the past two games. They are also two players at the opposite ends of their playing careers.

Cameron, who turns 36 next month, has proven he can still be an impactful defender despite the mileage accrued from spending the last decade playing in either the first or second division of English football. In only his second game with the club, he was named to MLS’s Team of the Week after notching an assist in the win over Montreal and playing a key hand in limiting Montreal to four shots on target. The former Queens Park Rangers captain isn’t the athlete he once was, but his years of experience should come in handy shepherding the back line.

Vallecilla, who turned 21 in May, has just 44 professional appearances to his name and was acquired from Ecuadorian side SD Aucas in April on a one-year loan. The 6-foot-3 defender is still a bit of a project and naturally lacks Cameron’s experience and pedigree, but his athleticism and ability to pass out of the back give him an edge over the club’s other center backs. Scoring the winning goal against Montreal should have given the Ecuadorian a big confidence boost. This odd couple has the potential to stabilize FC Cincinnati’s back line and is better equipped to cover for the frequent upfield forays of left back Ronald Matarrita and right back Joe Gyau, particularly when Stanko plays as a third center back.

It will be interesting to see if head coach Jaap Stam sticks with the 3–5–2 again against a solid Colorado team (fourth in the West) in the club’s first game back from the international break on June 19 and waits to try a 4–3–3 again later in June vs. Chicago and Toronto, a pair of struggling squads.

Picking up Vermeer early last month was more of a Cameron-esque move, as the 35-year-old spent the vast majority of his career playing in the Dutch first division with Ajax and Feyenoord. He appeared in eight games last year for Los Angeles FC and has immediately seized the first-team goalkeeping duties away from Tytoń. Vermeer failed to steal headlines in his first two starts vs. Miami and Montreal, but he was spectacular vs. New England, recording a handful of highlight-reel saves. Judging by his quick introduction in the starting XI, it appears that Vermeer has already won the trust of Stam, his former teammate at Ajax.

As mentioned above, FC Cincinnati and its new-look defense won’t take the field again until June 19 vs. Colorado in what could be the first-ever sellout at TQL Stadium. The layoff is due to a worldwide international break, with major international tournaments involving national teams starting on Thursday (CONCACAF Nations League Finals), June 11 (Euro 2020), and June 13 (Copa America). With Matarrita apparently injured, Cruz is the lone FCC player off on international duty. Both players were supposed to meet up with the Costa Rican national team for the Nations League Finals, though neither would have missed any FC Cincinnati matches with the Nations League wrapping up on Sunday.

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

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