Entering the original 2020 season, 10 matches would have represented less than one-third of the league games to be played (34) by FC Cincinnati. With the calendar approaching mid-September and Major League Soccer nearing the second phase of its return-to-market regular-season schedule due to COVID-19, 10 matches (we think) represents about half of the regular-season games MLS squads will play this year. MLS supposedly wants each team to play 23 league matches prior to the scheduled start of the playoffs on Nov. 20 and is expected to announce the rest of the regular season schedule soon. [NOTE: The rest of FCC’s September schedule is here.]
So, at the roughly halfway mark of the 2020 season, here’s what we know about FC Cincinnati:
Two of those matches were played pre-shutdown in March, a 3-2 loss at New York Red Bulls and a 2-1 setback to Atlanta United. The games were played under interim coach Yoann Damet, and both FCC opponents have since fired their head coaches.
Sitting in 12th place in the East, FC Cincinnati (9 points from 2 wins, 5 losses, and 3 draws) are presumably just one point out of the playoff race. Eighteen teams will advance to the postseason, but MLS has yet to officially establish how many teams from each conference will qualify. The expectation is that the East, which for the 2020 season has 14 teams—with expansion side Nashville moving over from the West—will have 10 squads make the playoffs, while the West (12 teams) will have eight.
With its 3-0 defeat in Columbus over the weekend, FCC extended its scoreless streak to 484 minutes, the longest in MLS this season. In 2019, with worse coaching and worse players—but with a normal schedule and no global pandemic—the Orange and Blue once went 528 minutes sans a score.
FC Cincinnati’s defensive shutout streak was snapped at 255 minutes when Columbus’ Pedro Santos slotted a shot past Przemyslaw Tytoń in the 52nd minute. Gyasi Zardes, who morphs into Robert Lewandowski whenever he plays FCC, added a brace as a second-half sub, upping his scoring tally to seven in five career games against FC Cincinnati.
The loss to Columbus was FCC’s fifth game in 17 days, a grueling slate similar to that of the league’s other clubs. Columbus was playing its fifth game in 18 days, for example. The Orange and Blue will receive a needed five full days of rest before completing the initial phase of their regular season restart on the road Saturday night at New York City FC (13 points), which is unbeaten (3 wins, 1 draw) in four of its five restart games.
Against Columbus, FC Cincinnati weren’t embarrassed on a grand level like it was in its MLS Is Back opener, but eight days after a resolute showing in a 0-0 draw at Nippert Stadium opposite the Crew, the Orange and Blue failed to log a single shot on target and were overrun in the second half. The cumulative score of the teams’ three matches so far in 2020 is 7-0. The obvious caveat here is that Columbus is the best team in Major League Soccer, having accumulated the most points (23) and best point differential (plus 14) while surrendering the fewest goals (2). The Crew are also 5-0-0 at home, and no doubt at least received a minor boost from the presence of fans in the stands on Saturday. With Ohio Governor Mike DeWine permitting the NFL’s Bengals and Browns to host spectators at two of their upcoming home games, it would be surprising not to see FC Cincinnati fans in Nippert at some point this season.
So, have FC Cincinnati made any progress since their heart-warming knockout stage run at MLS Is Back? Yes and no. With three clean sheets in the past five matches and an impressive shutout streak, FCC are much more consistent with their defending, even if they’re still prone to the occasional blowout—see Saturday night and a 3-0 beatdown at Chicago on Aug. 25.
But, at some point, a professional soccer team needs to score goals no matter how well it defends for long stretches. Critics will argue that accomplishment is easier said than done whilst employing a defensive-oriented formation that slams a figurative brake on any counterattack FC Cincinnati can spring. But failing to notch a single shot on a goal or a missed chance—even against a side as impressive as Columbus—is pitiful, as is not scoring for five consecutive matches.
FCC are capable of shuffling the ball through the midfield and even cracking the occasional diagonal pass to create open space in the attacking half of the field—but it’s at that exact area of the pitch where a combination of bad luck, a lack of inventiveness, and poor decision-making render the Orange and Blue toothless in front of the net. In last week’s 0-0 home draw vs. the Chicago Fire, Siem de Jong launched a 10-yard sitter into the stands near the end of the first half. Early in the second half, Jurgen Locadia’s golden chance was on target, but Chicago keeper Bobby Shuttlesworth wedged his body/shoulder/face in the way to block the shot. In the restart opener against D.C. United, Locadia’s well-taken late effort clanged off the post.
Head coach Jaap Stam is left with few options to inject life into the offense without compromising the defensive shape that keeps FC Cincinnati in games. The club’s mismatched roster isn’t helping things, and its new signings are likely weeks away from helping the club. Kamohelo Mokotjo is still overseas awaiting a work visa, and Álvaro Barreal still has multiple hurdles to clear before he can be added to the roster.
With 10 league games (and 11 matches total) to its name, is this who FC Cincinnati is for 2020? Surely a few goals will come in due time, but should we expect this flawed roster to be that much better than what it’s displayed to this point? I’m inclined to believe what I see at this point, so I’d say no. (The Orange and Blue are like their baseball-playing Queen City counterparts in this regard.) But there are still plenty of matches to be played in this wacky, haphazard season, and amazingly the postseason remains in reach.
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.