What Are They All About? FC Cincinnati
Working out the kinks. This past weekend the Chicago Fire started out their Carolina Challenge Cup warm-up with a 1-1 draw against Columbus Crew SC. Veljko Paunovic’s men could not hold onto a 1-0 lead that they earned on the back of an opportunistic clinical finish from Djordje Mihailovic and gave away what looked to be a rather soft goal for the equalizer. Gyassi Zardes was able to put his head onto an inviting cross from Waylon Francis as the Fire’s backline was truly in preseason form. The match took an unexpected turn when Will Trapp was sent off in the first half for a horrendous studs up tackle on Diego Campos, after which Chicago saw a lion’s share of the possession and chance creation but could not capitalize on their advantage.
Overall, results do not matter in preseason as teams look to gain match sharpness and exhibit a distinct style of play, but the Fire have plenty of takeaways from the encounter. Their attacking shape, tenacity on the ball, and ability to work around tight spaces is evident. They will certainly be a fun team to watch going forward. However, an aging double pivot in McCarty and Schweinsteiger was exposed in transition, Marcelo showed glimpses of why Sporting let him go so easily, and the outside back pairing of Campos and Edwards showed why they have been seen as attacking players in the past. There is still time to address the weaknesses and grow the strengths as Chicago takes on expansion side FC Cincinnati on Wednesday (6:30 PM CT on charlestonbattery.com).
Cincy entered this tournament with a bit more at stake than any of the other participants. They are building a squad relatively from scratch (they signed just six players from their 2018 USL squad) and need to form a new squad identity, navigate new roster rules, and spend well from the start, all while they attempt to show they belong with the big boys. Expansion sides coming up from the lower divisions have not had success in recent memory, with the likes of Minnesota, Orlando, Montreal, Vancouver, and even Portland struggling to make successful transitions in their early years. Signs seem to indicate that Alan Koch is going to have an uphill battle ahead of him. Cincinnati certainly has passion, ambition, and momentum, but will those things translate onto the field? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Cincy Preseason Form Guide: W-L-D-W-D
Previous Result: A 2-1 victory over Charleston Battery.
Formation: 3-4-3; Tyton; Hagglund, Deplange, Lasso; Powell, Ulloa, Bertone, Hoyte; Mattocks, Adi, Lamah
Strengths: With the current structure of the league and its approach to expansion, MLS certainly doesn’t set up franchises for failure in their expansion year. They have created enough mechanisms to ensure that Cincy will compete in its inaugural campaign even without blowing the bank on flashy DPs. Let’s see where they might succeed.
Ohio, the Heart of It All: While the Buckeye state certainly isn’t the most lavish in terms of its scenery, city life, or cultural appeal, the hard work, dedication, and no-nonsense approach of its inhabitants seems to have translated to its soccer team. The likes of Corben Bone, Fatai Alashe, Eric Alexander, Nick Hagglund, and Hoyte aren’t the flashiest of players nor are they household names in the league, but there is a certain amount of grit, hard work, and necessity to prove their worth that might just make this squad come together.
They have a bit of a Midwestern identity to them already and those that don’t have it yet will certainly know what it means to kick into gear under the tutelage of Koch. Known for expecting the best from his charges, the South African’s team wasn’t shy in the tackle last season, ran hard for ninety plus minutes in each encounter, and made their opponents work for every inch of gain on the field. Cincy has it in their nature to frustrate this Chicago side.
Hey, Wait for Us: One of the most evident struggles that Chicago had at the weekend was keeping up with the speed of Columbus’ wingers and overlapping fullbacks, especially in transition. Well, on paper, Cincy may have even more speed than the Crew. Darren Mattocks, Kekuta Manneh, Alvas Powell, and Roland Lamah have terrorized the Western conference in recent years and now find themselves in the Orange and Blue. Additionally, Generation Adidas midfielder Frankie Amaya certainly didn’t disappoint in his fitness trials prior to being chosen with the first round of the 2019 SuperDraft.
Cincinnati has not failed to capitalize on this aspect of their squad, opting to utilize a back three, two holding mids, and essentially four wingers complementing a lone striker up top in at least one half of each of their five preseason encounters thus far. Darren Mattocks has especially hit his stride after playing second fiddle to Wayne Rooney in DC last season. The Jamaican has notched three goals in four preseason matches. If Chicago’s defensive chemistry hasn’t significantly improved since Saturday, they could be in trouble.
Weaknesses: While Cincinnati has made some positive strides in the acquisition department and on the field, they still have a long road ahead of them in terms of legitimizing their place within MLS. The aforementioned lack of spending on impact players, a city council stand-off, zoning issues with stadium plans, and public calls for the tapering of first year expectations from the technical staff, soccer operations executives, and ownership alike are worrying signs. Let’s see where Cincy might struggle.
Not Living Up to Expectations: When Alan Koch was interviewed after the expansion draft about what onlookers might see from Cincinnati this season he replied with the following, "We've done some very good pieces of business so far to get the pieces we have in place, but we still have work to do in the remainder of this window. We'll have work to do in the summer window, and we'll have more work to do next year”. The Cincy head coach can be described as coolness personified but that statement was a bit drab even by his standards.
Sure, it is better to overachieve than to underachieve but calls for patience, pleas for believing in the process, and setting markers in the future are not things that instill confidence. Those types of attitudes have been reflected by the likes of Minnesota, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Colorado recently while Atlanta, Toronto, and LAFC have hit the ground running under new regimes. No matter what happens on Wednesday and no matter how hard the Ohio outfit works, there are some significant gaps in the squad and a clear message that they will not be filled in a manner consistent with MLS’ most successful teams.
Where is Your Core?: Perhaps the biggest question for this group is one of identity. When you look at the roster on paper, it is largely a team of journeymen, players that were not happy with their previous contract situation, players looking for another shot at MLS, and hopeful international diamonds in the rough. Fanendo Adi has worn the armband for Cincy throughout the season (with Corben Bone deputizing in his absence) but the Nigerian has often been criticized as being a mercenary and a rogue looking for his next payday rather than a committed squad player. Similarly, Kendall Waston took to social media to decry the way in which MLS handled his transfer to Cincy after a very public falling out with the Vancouver Front Office and a trade request.
Lastly, of the thirty-two rostered players, arguably a quarter of them have a USL ceiling, and many of the remainder have bounced around an unusually high number of clubs—even by MLS standards. We may be proven wrong, but at the moment, this FC Cincinnati side seems like it as an experiment of “let’s throw things at the wall until they stick”.
Prediction: We will continue to refrain from score predictions in preseason, but this one will be a goal fest. Chicago’s backline worries will only get worse and an inability to boss their defensive third will be their Achilles heel this season.