The Highs and Lows So Far of FC Cincinnati’s Inaugural MLS Season

The best and worst moments, players, and decisions through the season’s first quarter.
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Following a 3-0 home defeat Friday night to Real Salt Lake, FC Cincinnati is roughly one-quarter of the way through its maiden voyage in Major League Soccer. With 26 matches to go, the Orange and Blue sit eighth in the Eastern Conference (2 wins, 4 losses, 2 draws) with eight points.

 

Through FCC’s first four games, the expansion franchise impressed by registering seven points. But the last four matches have been disastrous, with just one point tallied, and that came at Nippert Stadium against a heavily rotated Sporting Kansas City side that was ripe for the taking. And while FCC exhibited strong defensive stretches, the club has now suffered through four straight games sans a goal from live play, lending credence to preseason concerns that head coach Alan Koch’s roster was heavy on defensive-minded types and light on creative offensive options.

With that in mind, let’s review the season to date.

Best moment: The 3-nil ass-kicking of the defending Western Conference champion Portland Timbers in FC Cincinnati’s initial MLS home game. Everything went to script for the newbies that night, with a sellout crowd of 32,250 and ideal weather providing a perfect atmosphere. MLS Commissioner Don Garber waxed poetic about FCC’s sudden ascent from the United Soccer League. And who can forget Allan Cruz’s audacious backheel goal? What a night for the city of Cincinnati.

Worst moment: Friday’s setback at Nippert Stadium may have been the franchise’s on-field nadir. FC Cincinnati dominated possession through 40 minutes, had Real Salt Lake chasing the ball, and forced corner kick after corner kick. But aside from a header cleared off the line, FCC failed to trouble RSL seriously around the goal, falling victim to miscommunication, deficient decision-making, and poor touch on the ball. The hosts’ spirit was broken twice—once by two fluke goals by RSL prior to halftime after FCC couldn’t clear its lines, and then not long after halftime when a reinvigorated Orange and Blue ceded a game-sealing penalty for RSL’s final goal.

Most impressive player: Goalkeeper Spencer Richey. Save for his howler against Sporting KC, Richey has impressed between the posts. Entering the season as Przemyslaw Tytoń’s backup, he’s started seven straight games, recording a pair of clean sheets in the process. And the 26-year-old notched five saves against LAFC to keep the Orange and Blue in the game despite an onslaught of pressure. Honorable mentions to Leonardo Bertone, Mathieu Deplagnen, and Nick Hagglund, who have played every minute of all eight games to this point, providing Koch with some needed stability.

Most disappointing player: Fanendo Adi. Adi’s OVI citation earlier this month has robbed the club of not only one if its Designated Players, but a striker who can relieve pressure on FC Cincinnati’s midfield by holding up play with his 6-foot-4-inch frame. Adi left the Portland game early with injury, but likely would have recovered to play in FCC’s past few games. Now, he isn’t permitted to even practice with the team until he’s cleared by the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. A team really struggling not only for goals, but simply for shots on goal, needs its target man in the worst way.

Player who has been oddly quiet but could have a role to play going forward: Midfielder Fatai Alashe. Alashe (and Adi) were acquired by FCC last season and suited up for the club during its run to the USL regular-season championship. Alashe racked up over 6,000 minutes in four seasons with San Jose Earthquakes from 2015 to 2018 and appeared to have a clear path to the starting 11 in 2019 before the offseason arrivals of Bertone and Victor Ulloa, who have been Koch’s preferred defensive midfield duo. Alashe also battled an undisclosed injury during the preseason; he was named to the bench for the first time for FCC’s fourth game and made his season debut on Friday. If Koch decides to alter his formation or simply change things up, Alashe could find his chance.

Best opposing fan section: LAFC’s 3252. The black and yellow colors made this boisterous bunch look like an American version of German power Borussia Dortmund’s Yellow Wall, furnishing LAFC’s beautiful Banc of California stadium with a pulsating soundtrack.

What happens now? It’s clear Koch, technical director Luke Sassano, and company had a clear vision for this team: maintain a strong defense that would be difficult to break down, attack on the counter when possible, and dominate set pieces with their size. FCC loaded up on quick, defensive-minded midfielders adept at cutting off passing angles and dispossessing the opposition. They acquired fleet-footed wingers like Roland Lamah and Kekuta Manneh—as well as a pacey striker in Darren Mattocks—who could track back defensively in a pinch but also get forward on counter attacks quickly to force one-on-ones. And they planned on the size of Adi and center backs Nick Hagglund (6’1”) and Kendall Waston (6’5”) causing havoc in the penalty area. (To FCC’s credit, it noticed it had gone too far down the defensive rabbit hole and acquired Kenny Saief from Belgium’s first division after the season-opening loss in Seattle.)

I’ll defend Koch and his staff. Expansion teams are inherently light on continuity—you’re literally starting from ground zero in terms of scheme, familiarity, etc. FC Cincinnati has also had to deal with an unplanned suspension from Adi; various injuries, most notably from prized offseason acquisition Greg Garza; and ill-timed international break absences. Rare has been the occasion when Koch has been able to trot out his preferred starting 11, and while it’s true that every team battles injuries, the line is incredibly thinner for expansion sides.

There’s plenty of time to turn things around, but it won’t be easy: FCC’s next three games and six of its next eight are on the road. Before the season, I predicted 43 points and an eighth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Unless the club can find a way to score more goals, the postseason still looks out of 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.

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