They Are the Champions

FCC faces a daunting task Sunday in Atlanta, where the defending champs host their home opener.
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I’ve been listening to a podcast series that dives deep into the history of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s songwriting partnership. The stories revealing the depth and quality of the duo’s collaboration are remarkable, particularly when considering the interior and exterior forces that chipped away at The Beatles during the group’s tumultuous final years. A key characteristic of McCartney and Lennon’s success was not just familiarity, but the ability to excavate songwriting gold out of a seemingly useless tune.

Expecting historical levels of greatness from FC Cincinnati is naturally moronic, especially after just one game in Major League Soccer. But my musical tangent is (an admittedly roundabout) way of stating that if conservative, defense-first soccer is going to be your defining identity—or what’s called “parking the bus” in soccer parlance—opportunism is essential when it comes to goal-scoring chances. Fashioning attack-minded play after long stretches of defending is difficult, but has to be pursued. That should be one of the minor victories FCC chases on Sunday in Atlanta against the reigning MLS champions.

That FC Cincinnati was whacked 4-1 in its major league debut in Seattle wasn’t a surprise, and neither was the manner in which they were dismantled. Everything went downhill after Leonardo Bertone’s wonderstrike to provide FCC with a brief 1-0 advantage, but, damn, what a goal that was. Now it’s up to Alan Koch and his players to remedy a few elements of their play. The midweek addition of Kenny Saief from Belgium’s first division should add vitality and composure to the Orange and Blue’s attacking midfield ranks.

Atlanta United, FC Cincinnati’s next opponent, was a well-oiled scoring machine in 2018, racking up a league-high 70 goals, including a single-season MLS record 31 from league MVP Josef Martínez. He’ll surely make life difficult for FCC’s defense, but fortunately for the visitors, Atlanta midfielder Miguel Almirón was sold to Newcastle United of England’s Premier League in late January after notching 12 goals and 14 assists in 2018.

Atlanta also lost its title-winning head coach when Tata Martino was hired to helm the Mexican national team, and his replacement is Frank de Boer, a former player and manager at legendary Dutch club Ajax. Greg Garza, who made 26 appearances for Atlanta last season, now plays for FC Cincinnati, though after sitting out last weekend and the preseason due to injury, Garza’s status for Sunday is very much in doubt.

Much like last weekend, when it tallied just 36 percent possession vs. Seattle, FC Cincinnati likely won’t have much of the ball against Atlanta. When the visitors do have the ball, they’d do well to complete more than 73 percent of their passes, which was their mark against Seattle. Passing accuracy is certainly overrated in some respects, but chiefly for well-organized, counterattack-minded squads who can create scoring chances within seconds via two to three well-timed passes—an attribute not presently applicable to FCC.

One small advantage FC Cincinnati may have is that Atlanta played Wednesday night in Monterrey, Mexico, for a CONCACAF Champions League match, losing 3-0. (Think UEFA Champions League, but for top teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.) So FCC will be the better-rested club. And yet, with Sunday functioning as the home opener for Atlanta, its first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium—where the club regularly packs 50,000 spectators into a cauldron of clamor and enthusiasm—since winning MLS Cup, whatever Atlanta lacks in rest and cohesion after a midweek game and roster turnover likely will be mitigated by unvarnished adrenaline.

On Sunday, then, mind the scoreline but also look for minor improvements, and remember that the opening portion of FC Cincinnati’s schedule is painfully unforgiving, so proper perspective is needed.

Grant Freking is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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