What Are They All About? FC Cincinnati
Back to reality. This past weekend the Chicago Fire Soccer Club lost on the road to Sporting Kansas City. The 1-0 result sent the technical staff back to the drawing board as the Fire dropped back down to tenth in the East and extended their winless MLS road streak to twenty-one matches. With a convincing victory over Atlanta United the week prior, questions abound with regards to consistency, mentality, and execution as the season quickly enters the final third of its schedule. There is seemingly time to turn a new leaf as results around the conference have kept Chicago within touching distance of the playoffs and the MLS calendar sees them play inter-conference opponents for its next four matches. First up, FC Cincinnati at SeatGeek stadium this Saturday (7:00 CT on ESPN+).
This year’s expansion side has not exactly hit the ground running as they’ve become a poster child for not making the jump to MLS. Attendance records, playoff runs, Open Cup heroics, and an overall big fish in a small pond feeling have all dissipated as Cincy remains on pace for a new MLS goals against record and could still theoretically finish with the lowest points total ever in the league. A roller coaster adjustment period saw the Ohio outfit fire head coach Alan Koch after just eleven MLS matches and a very public falling out with his locker room. A streak of five consecutive losses without notching a single goal spelled the end for the South African, leaving Yoann Damet as a long-term interim coach.
The club also made significant changes to its front office, hiring Gerard Nijkamp as the General Manager of the club in May. Nijkamp spent seven years heading up the technical side of PEC Zwolle in the Eredivisie and has promised to rebuild the sporting foundations of the club moving forward. However, with Cincy losing six of its seven matches since Nijkamp’s hiring, the project seems to have a long-term trajectory and the new GM will have his work cut out for him. Will the visitors build some momentum after their win against Houston this weekend, or will the hosts manage to stay among the sides battling for seventh in the East? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
FC Cincinnati Form Guide (All Competitions): W-L-L-L-W
Previous Result: A 3-2 victory at home against Houston.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Richey; Hoyte, Hagglund, Waston, Deplange; Cruz, Bertone; Ledesma, Amaya, Manneh; Dally
Strengths: Being rock bottom of the MLS Standings certainly limits this column for Cincinnati. However, given their expansion label, the unpreparedness of the club in making the jump to MLS, and the holes that Koch dug, there are some bright spots to highlight as this new-new project gets off the ground.
Confidence and Positivity: In their midweek interviews following the home win over Houston, the players and coaching staff alike couldn’t help but smile as they talked about turning a corner. Getting just their second league win under Damet—arguably the first under his system and tutelage—will provide a breath of fresh air around the locker room. Damet himself said - “I hope we can capitalize on that (win) and build momentum and reproduce these types of performances in the future”. Midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma was more explicit in carrying over that positive outlook to the fixture against the Fire, “we’re winning, we go to Chicago with a lot of confidence. We have to keep working and then we maybe can win again”. Leo Bertone added that the relief from earning three points at the weekend has allowed the side to calm down and be patient moving forward, keys to the match against Chicago in his eyes. Whether those interviews turn into a result is a completely different story, but at the moment it seems like there is an upbeat mood around the Cincy team.
Tactical Shift: The match against Houston saw Damet continue his 4-2-3-1 formation but two personnel changes made all the difference in securing three points. The hosts slotted veteran defender Justin Hoyte in at right back and returned Allan Cruz to the starting lineup in midfield alongside stalwart Leo Bertone.
As we noted earlier, this Cincinnati side has leaked goals at a record pace this season. Part of the problem has been Koch and Damet’s insistence on overlapping fullbacks and seemingly constant rotation at center back due to injuries and international call-ups. By utilizing Hoyte at right back and asking Mathieu Deplange to be more conservative in going forward against an electrifying Dynamo side, Cincinnati were able to shut down Houston in the first half. Although they fell asleep in the second and conceded twice, mentality and game readiness, rather than tactics, were at play given their multi-goal lead at that point.
Similarly, opting for Cruz instead of Victor Ulloa allowed Damet’s side to pressure quickly, constantly, and effectively. Speed, size, and passing ability are in Cruz’s locker and he played a crucial role in stifling any Houston productivity in the midfield while also serving as a key transition pivot on two of Cincy’s goals. Should he feature against the Fire, Katai, Gaitan, and Mihailovic will have to think on their toes. Moreover, Cruz’s mentality seemed infectious as Cincy won over 65% of its duels last Saturday. The match may not be pretty but that may just play into the hands of the visitors.
Weaknesses: While it might be easy to blast this Cincy side in this column, we must take into account that Atlanta United and LAFC are statistical anomalies in the expansion category. The fact remains that making the jump to MLS has not traditionally gone well for most clubs. Toronto’s nine-year playoff absence, Montreal’s woeful beginnings, and Orlando’s continuing mess have been the norm. Without being overly harsh, let’s see where Cincy might struggle on Saturday.
Big Misses: When Alan Koch was interviewed while making FC Cincinnati’s expansion draft picks he laid out a model of entering MLS that caused many ears to perk up. Cincy were not going to spend big. Instead, they were going to attempt to instill a hard-working mentality into the squad, invest in training facilities and sports science, and make budget friendly acquisitions that had high ceilings. With that type of model, hitting on your higher salaried players becomes all the more crucial.
Adding the likes of Kendall Waston, Fanendo Adi, Darren Mattocks, Roland Lamah and Kenny Saief as DPs, TAM players, and higher budget charge players caused some head scratching at the time but have turned out to be disastrous in hindsight. Adi, Cincy’s highest paid player, has yet to score an MLS goal for his side despite being signed as the cornerstone DP forward for the club. Kenny Saief’s locker room ego, lack of work rate, and conflict inducing nature earned him an early loan termination. Lamah and Mattocks have shown flashes of brilliance but have shown why they were made available by their previous clubs. Lastly, Kendall Waston has validated criticism of his contract holdout at Vancouver by playing in a way that indicates he is merely along for the ride as he collects a sizable paycheck.
Shelling out to land former PEC Zwolle center back Maikel van der Werff a mere six months after making a record allocation money move for Waston truly encapsulates their misses in the market. A lack of planning and foresight seem to have doomed this expansion season for the visitors despite having a promising market to build upon. They will be hoping to remedy that situation under the guidance of their new GM, but that won’t help them on Saturday.
Stats?: The fact that FC Cincinnati does not have a quick access “Stats” button on their homepage speaks volumes. This season has been absolutely awful. In addition to the above listed defensive calamities, they have struggled going forward as well. Kekuta Manneh is their leading goal scorer with three tallies, while Emmanuel Ledesma leads the assists category, also with three. For comparison, with nineteen goals on the season Carlos Vela has scored more than the entire Cincy team. We can draw up excuses for the lack of productivity, but the fact remains that one result against Houston, a side struggling on the road this season, does not effectively indicate forward progress. There is a lot of work for this Cincy side to do moving forward and that includes jettisoning much of this current roster.
Prediction: Story lines, midweek interviews, and hopeful projects all go out the window when the starting whistle blows. This Cincinnati side is bad and overcoming Chicago’s home form is too much of a hill to climb. Anything less than a win for the Fire at SeatGeek would be an embarrassment to the organization. Chicago 3-1 Cincinnati. Sapong, Frankowski, and Nikolic for the hosts. Dally for the visitors to make it two in two for the rookie.