What Are They All About? FC Cincinnati
You get a goal, you get a goal, everyone gets a goal! The Chicago Fire steam rolled past Miami FC in another Suncoast showcase match as they netted five times against a poor and out of sorts NASL side. Two head scratching defensive lapses saw them concede twice for a final score line of 5-2. The group continues to gel as an offensive unit and gain fitness as they move closer to the MLS season opener on March 4th while also reiterating a need for some defensive depth. Lingering questions of back line aptitude may be answered as former Columbus Crew home grown defender Chad Barson and former Newcastle United defender Ryan Taylor have both joined the preseason trialists list. They check boxes in terms of need and versatility with Barson having featured at both center back and right back (although he started just seven matches for Columbus over the course of the last two seasons) and Taylor playing as a right back or right winger throughout his career. If those additions become permanent, the Fire will have some much needed competition at the right back position.
Chicago will take on FC Cincinnati on Wednesday at 3 pm CT (streamed by IMG Academy at live.imgacademytv.com) as the penultimate match of their preseason. Paunovic has elected to mostly start his preferred XI in the last three preseason matches but this encounter could serve as a final test for some of the trialists as well as a match fitness gauge for those on the periphery of the squad before a final preseason test against TFC.
Cincinnati enters the match with some lingering questions of its own as they look to rebound from the departure of iconic head coach John Harkes. The man responsible for the USL side’s third place finish in its inaugural year was relieved of his duties last week after a tumultuous relationship with general manager Jeff Berding came to a boiling point. Reactions in Cincinnati were mostly that of shock as a growing grass roots fan base came to terms with the harsh realities of modern soccer. This match could serve as a fresh start to the squad or provide a sense of satisfaction to those scoffing at Berding’s decision. Will Chicago set itself up to claim a three year preseason unbeaten streak on Saturday, or will they stumble just before the finish line? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Formation: 4-2-3-1: Hildebrandt; Polak, Delbridge, Nicholson, McMahon; Quinn, Walker; Townsend, Stevenson, Dacres; Mansaray
Strengths: Cincinnati will feature some faces that will be familiar to the Fire faithful (which squad doesn’t boast a few ex-Chicago players?) and will be looking to get into the swing of things as this is their first week of preseason and only their second preparatory match. Let’s see where they might succeed.
Safe Hands: As FC Cincinnati finished third in their conference last season, they finished with the fourth best GA average in the league. The man charged with organizing the back line and responsible for stopping shots was goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt. Featuring in all but two of Cincinnati’s matches he finished the season with an impressive .86 GA average. Did we mention he won USL goalkeeper of the year? While he will certainly be put to the test against Chicago on Wednesday and the USL is nowhere near the caliber of MLS, we could see a bit more fortitude between the posts than we have previously this preseason.
Midfield Dynamism: This FC Cincinnati side has nine midfielders listed on their roster as they enter the match (and properly categorizing Kadeem Dacres as a winger would make it ten). Harkes had the group playing a no-nonsense high press style which saw them dominate in possession and control large portions of their matches. The midfield trio Stevenson, Bone, and Dacres embodied the team’s mentality and approach. FC Cincinnati’s 2016 MVP and Fire fan favorite Corben Bone was charged with breaking up play and recovering possession, Stevenson’s versatility saw him play either in the center of the attack or as a right winger that drifts inside, and Dacres was responsible for stretching play with his speed and physicality. Ultimately the trio along with Wiedeman and McLaughlin were responsible for getting the ball to the feet of Sean Okoli, but they showed a keen ability to do that.
Back with a Vengeance: Joining Corben Bone in the list of legendz featuring in this match is Austin Berry. Both players were drafted by Chicago–Bone in 2010 and Berry in 2012–and saw promising starts to their careers dwindle into obscurity. Berry, the 2012 Rookie of the year and Bobble Head giveaway, featured in 64 matches over the course of his two seasons with the Fire before being inexplicably traded to Philadelphia for allocation money. The move never sat well with him. Ultimately, he never adjusted to Philly and was loaned to South Korean side FC Anyang (this is the club’s real name, not an Arrested Development joke). Corben Bone featured far less frequently–just 15 appearances over four years–before also being traded to Philly. Neither player will need any extra motivation to do well on Wednesday.
Filling Okoli’s Shoes: While the midfield workhorses listed above created many of the chances, forward Sean Okoli was the one to finish them. The NYCFC youngster was on loan at Cincinnati last season and he notched sixteen goals and three assists (more than double that of his next closest teammate’s contributions), earning him the USL MVP award. He has been recalled by NYCFC and has featured in their preseason friendlies quite heavily, even being given the honor of touting the number nine this season. Vieira has made it clear that Okoli will be staying in New York this season. Andrew Wiedeman (seven goals, three assists), Jimmy McLaughlin (four goals, three assists) and Omar Cummings (three goals, five assists) will be charged with picking up where Okoli left off. There’s no comparison really and with fitness, chemistry, and the morale blow of Harkes leaving, we just don’t see much happening up top for Cincy.
It’s a USL side…: Look guys, gals, and others, this won’t be much of a match up. We like to peruse statistics, watch game footage, and scour through obscure histories to bring you some level of parity, but the truth remains these opponents are not on the same level. Chicago calmly dispatched an NASL side this weekend and FC Cincinnati won’t pose a real threat. As much as we may personally like Austin Berry, this match could be a showcase of why he spent time in South Korea. Their 3-2 loss against OKC Energy should be worrisome to Cincinnati fans and reassuring to Chicago supporters. AAC Eagles youth product and Fire Academy player Wojciech Wojcik–now with OKC Energy–slotted two goals past this defense within six minutes of stepping onto the field, as the Cincy backline looked like it had just rolled out of bed. They were second best throughout the second half of that match and while Cincy’s technical staff tries to figure out whether the problems stem from morale, fatigue, poor chemistry, or just preseason nonchalance, Niko, Accam, and de Leeuw will be banging in the goals.
Prediction: Chicago 6-2 Cincinnati. Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez will be patting themselves on the back as the Fire collect another preseason win. Confidence and hope will grow around the squad and amongst the fans but once again, will it meaning anything in March? The line between unadulterated joy and agonizing despair is thin indeed for the Fire faithful.