It wouldn’t be difficult to party-poop FC Cincinnati’s 1-1 draw against Atlanta United on Sunday. FCC enjoyed virtually zero meaningful possession, and their attempts at link up play in the middle or latter half of the field were haphazard. And FCC caught Atlanta in a chaotic stretch adjusting to a new coach’s philosophy while playing five games in 15 days to begin the season. But you know what, a damn expansion team wrestled out a tie against the champions of Major League Soccer in their banner-raising home opener! That’s a meaningful accomplishment.
In truth, I’m being a bit harsh on FC Cincinnati—its defensive shape was strong and cohesive all night, with the entire back six and second string goalkeeper Spencer Richey turning in sterling showings and exhibiting marked improvement over the Week 1 loss in Seattle. Though Atlanta lost playmaker Miguel Almiron to the English Premier League, it possesses ample attacking talent; FCC limited Atlanta, which led Major League Soccer in goals in 2018, to four shots on goal. FCC remained in the same 4-2-3-1 formation it displayed last week, but with winger Kekuta Manneh starting and Allan Cruz coming into the right side of midfield ahead of Alvas Powell. With those adjustments, the visitors found better success at clogging the field and chasing down Atlanta’s link-up play.
Offensively, FC Cincinnati’s dearth of possession (33 percent vs. Atlanta after 36 percent vs. Seattle) remains a bugaboo, but its fleet-footed wingers (Manneh, Roland Lomah, and Darren Mattocks) troubled Atlanta’s defense at times. And though FCC logged just a single shot on goal, it had a handful of tasty scoring chances ruled offsides, notably Fanendo Adi’s sweeping header in the 55th minute. In the end, it was Kenny Saief, the midweek addition from Belgium, setting up Lomah’s goal with a sleek diagonal pass that sliced Atlanta open.
What a difference a week makes. Now FC Cincinnati (0-1-1) can set its eyes on a first-ever MLS victory in its home opener Sunday evening vs. the Portland Timbers (0-1-1). Not only did Saief make his squad debut last weekend, but so did another offseason acquisition, Greg Garza—who played for Atlanta last year and received a lovely ovation from the home crowd upon his entry in the 71st minute. Garza looked quite pacey racing up the left flank, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him handed his first start this weekend.
I’ve made a big deal about how excruciating FC Cincinnati’s opening schedule is, playing eight 2018 playoff teams in the first 10 games, and rightfully so. It is brutal. But due to construction on its home pitch, Providence Park, Portland is playing its first 12 (!) contests on the road; the Timbers’ home opener is over two months away on June 1. (Fun fact: Providence Park served primarily college football and minor league baseball teams before the Timbers joined MLS in 2011.)
Portland has some impressive highs in MLS. It fell 2-0 to Atlanta in last season’s MLS Cup but won the 2015 MLS Cup, downing FC Cincinnati’s new rivals to the north, Columbus Crew. The club has also reached the playoffs in three of the past four years. But through two games, Portland has allowed a league-high seven goals, including three at Colorado in a snowstorm that went down as the coldest game in MLS history. (For my money, FCC’s chief concern should be proper ear safety.)
Sunday will serve as a day of celebration and coronation for FC Cincinnati, and the added benefit of St. Patrick’s Day will surely inject further frivolity into what should be a sellout crowd at Nippert Stadium. Enjoy Sunday, Cincinnati. You’ve earned it.