While FC Cincinnati’s Round of 16 loss to the Portland Timbers via penalty kicks was an agonizing way to exit the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando, the club recovered from a crushing tournament-opening loss to its rival to claim a pair of morale-boosting triumphs over perennial Eastern Conference playoff teams. FCC wound up second in Group E ahead of Atlanta and New York Red Bulls, and its advancement to the knockout stage was easily the most profound achievement since its promotion to MLS.
Even though Portland wound up playing the role of executioner, Jaap Stam and his staff unearthed a defensive identity that could lead to the franchise’s first MLS playoff berth. That’s contingent upon completion of a regular season outside of a hotel/sporting complex “bubble,” of course.
The coaches and fans also got long looks at players who either didn’t see a ton of minutes in 2019 or were new signings for 2020, and many of them may have carved out permanent starting roles. Andrew Gutman looks to have established himself as the starting left back and/or left winger over Greg Garza with his dedicated defense and ability to get forward. The 23-year-old played every minute of FCC’s final three games in Orlando. Joe Gyau displayed defensive chops as a right winger while his as-advertised pace proved troublesome for many defenders—just ask Atlanta United’s Jake Mulraney or Portland’s Jorge Villafaña. He should only improve with Jurgen Locadia’s reintegration into the starting XI.
Haris Medujanin looked like a squeaky old wheel in the opener, but the post-Columbus disaster adjustments served him well. With Caleb Stanko offering additional defensive cover for the 35-year-old midfielder, Medujanin offered glimpses of why he was targeted by FC Cincinnati. According to Cincinnati Soccer Talk, the Bosnian completed 90 percent of his passes against Portland, including six of eight long balls. Medujanin also delivered an excellent entry ball for Mathieu Deplagne’s just-offside goal in the 61st minute.
Spencer Richey was the preferred goalkeeper for FC Cincinnati’s three head coaches in 2019 and started the first two pre-pandemic games of 2020. But since Stam’s been in charge, Przemysław Tytoń has regained the No. 1 spot between the sticks. He started all four games in Orlando, and saved his best performance for last vs. Portland, recording seven stops and playing a central role in the 277-minute goalless stretch opponents racked up against a resolute FCC defense.
With MLS Is Back’s championship match set for Tuesday, the league is reportedly keen to resume regular-season play on August 21, with The Washington Post reporting that FC Cincinnati will host D.C. United that day. Here are some storylines to keep an eye on over the next few weeks:
Can MLS learn from Major League Baseball? There will be no bubble when MLS restarts regular season play, and as we’ve learned from MLB, no bubble can lead to big COVID-19 consequences. Baseball began its season on July 23 and failed to make it out of its first weekend of play without a team-wide outbreak, as 18 Miami Marlins eventually tested positive for COVID-19 and forced the squad into an eight-day shutdown without games. Meanwhile, 13 members of the St. Louis Cardinals’ traveling party recently tested positive for coronavirus. MLS players, coaches, and other traveling personnel will have to be extraordinarily disciplined in their adherence to health and testing protocols to ensure the league can complete a newfangled regular season and postseason. (The Post also reported that to reduce the need for hotels, road teams will often travel to and from their destinations on the same day, if buses and charter flights are possible.) But, if we’re being honest, MLS and its clubs will also need to just get plain lucky. Positive tests are going to happen, but outbreaks need to be avoided.
Can Jurgen Locadia finally find his footing? The ex-Premier League striker arrived in February and made two appearances and one start prior to the league’s hiatus, scoring a goal—and that was after he took a transatlantic flight back to the U.S. from the Netherlands to secure his work visa. He barely had time to lace up his boots before the games started to count. Then the Designated Player picked up an injury during MLS Is Back training, keeping him off the pitch in Orlando until he came on in the 72nd minute vs. Portland. He successfully converted a pressure-packed penalty in the 81st minute to tie the game, but missed a sitter in the game’s waning moments that would have won the match. His attempt during the penalty shootout was weak and easily saved. Still, Locadia should earn plaudits for coming off the bench ice, ice cold, having not played a competitive minute since March. FC Cincinnati needs to keep its 6-foot-4 scoring machine healthy and find a way to mesh his offensive prowess into the radically defensive-centric strategy Stam put forth in Orlando.
Speaking of that defense-first, defense-second strategy, can FC Cincinnati afford to be more expansive offensively without compromising its newfound defensive solidity? By now you know the story. FCC were routed 4-0 by Columbus in the first game of Group E play. Stam then decided to park the bus and slash all tires for the remainder of the tournament, conceding possession, territory, and shots in exchange for a well-drilled defensive block that vastly cut down on clear goal-scoring opportunities to opponents. The 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2 depending on your point of view) formation was a massive success; the same club that allowed the most goals in MLS history last season registered back-to-back clean sheets and just one goal over its final three tournament matches.
Locadia’s presence will necessitate some adjustments—the formation switched to a 4-3-3 upon his entry against Portland—and logic would also dictate that midfielder Allan Cruz, one of the FCC’s three Designated Players (along with Locadia and Yuya Kubo), is on track for more regular playing time. Cruz was used as a substitute vs. Columbus and Portland; missed the Atlanta game through injury; and was an unused sub vs. New York Red Bulls. Just 24, he would seem to be a big part of FC Cincinnati’s future—he inked a multi-year contract extension in November after being named team MVP in 2019—and is more of an attacking-minded midfielder, evidenced by the penalty he won vs. Portland.
Is the postseason in reach? The top nine teams in each conference, two more than usual, will make the postseason, per The Athletic. Right now FC Cincinnati is eighth in the East with six points from five games (two regular season, three MLS Is Back). MLS apparently wants each club to finish with 23 regular season games played, with those matches being intra-conference affairs. More games vs. the East equals additional matches against the Columbus Crew (first in the East and very much passing the eye test), Orlando City (MLS Is Back semifinalist), Philadelphia (MLS Is back semifinalist), and battle-tested Toronto (second in the East and reached the MLS Cup in two of the past three seasons). But Nashville has joined fellow expansion side Inter Miami in the East for the rest of the year, and Atlanta and NY Red Bulls have taken a step back from recent successful seasons. The West appears to be stronger as a whole, paced by LAFC (2019’s best regular season team by a wide margin), Sporting Kansas City (first in the West and annual playoff contender), Minnesota United (second in West and MLS Is back semifinalist), perennial power Seattle, Portland (MLS Is Back semifinalist), and a San Jose side whose manic style is extremely difficult to match up against. Really, we could just boil it down to this: The two expansion teams provide East teams with (in theory) a few extra easier matches to get results.
One of FC Cincinnati’s biggest problems last year was that they often were never in a place to come back late in matches; in 34 league tilts in 2019, the Orange and Blue lost by at least three goals on seven occasions, leading to the formation of a mentally fragile side that I referenced a few weeks back. I didn’t detect much of that delicacy in MLS Is Back. With the new defensive approach, FCC simply needs to stay in games and weather the attacking storms against more talented opponents. Stam won’t be able to start Locadia, Kubo, Gyau, Cruz, Siem de Jong, Adrien Regattin, and Frankie Amaya in each match, so FCC will have the ability to throw on fresh attacking legs late in matches.
Under the reported format, FC Cincinnati will be playing a lot of games in a short amount of time, but with a favorable schedule, a cemented team identity, and a legitimate star striker. If the healthcare crisis abides, Orange and Blue fans could be in for an exciting sprint to the finish … perhaps all the way to the playoffs?