What Are They All About? FC Cincinnati
Holding on. This past weekend the Chicago Fire Soccer Club kept its slim playoff hopes alive with a 4-0 home victory over FC Dallas. A sublime performance from a squad that has always been capable of such matches saw Joe Mansueto’s sole ownership of the club start off on the perfect note. While some detractors may say that Dallas’ backline looked like it had never played together before, the fact of the matter was that the Fire were clicking superbly, and the visitors never stood a chance once the opening whistle was blown. Questions of “too little, too late?” will continue to abound as there are only nine points left for the Fire to take and potentially a six-point gap to make up for the last playoff spot. They will travel to Ohio to take on FC Cincinnati this weekend in another make or break encounter (6:30 CT on ESPN+).
The first meeting between these two sides this season, hosted by Chicago in July, ended with an unlikely victory for the visitors who both then and now own the label of the worst team in MLS. That moment was a rare positive asterisk on a disastrous season. Mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with over two months remaining in the season is no small feat—even for an expansion side—and many of the unheeded warnings tossed FCC’s way are looking prophetic. A mix of journeymen, unproven talent, and MLS contract holdouts has not led to success by any measure for the new Ohioan outfit and they currently find themselves amidst a rebuild just a year removed from their unveiling.
The scene is set up perfectly for Chicago as they look to do the improbable, but then again, such was the case in July. Surprisingly, this will be a matchup that many in the East have their eyes on and the role of underdog will certainly suit a Cincy side looking to continue their newly cast role as a playoff spoiler. The future of the storied Chicago club is bright indeed, but for now, the sun is just beginning to peak over the horizon. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Cincy Form Guide: L-W-L-L-L
Previous Result: A 2-0 home loss to Atlanta.
Formation: 4-3-3; Tyton; Deplange, van der Werff, Hagglund, Gutman; Alashe, Bertone, Amaya; Manneh, Ledesma, Gyau
Strengths: No, as tempting as it may be, we cannot skip this column. There are traps in every corner of MLS no matter how poor a team’s form or roster are, and Cincy is no different. The addition of Gerard Nijkamp as General Manager and the hiring of Ron Jans as the head coach are steps in the right direction (yes, we understand both should have happened much sooner) and have at least begun to give FCC a sense of identity. Let’s see where that may be apparent on Saturday.
No, You “Were” a Soccer Player: The reality of the situation is that FC Cincinnati is going to undergo a mass overhaul in the offseason. Nijkamp and Jans have already begun to make roster decisions for next year and are constantly evaluating who may be part of their future plans. This summer, USMNT fringe player Kenny Saief was sent packing after his loan was terminated, Eric Alexander was waved, and Forrest Lasso was loaned to Nashville in the USL, all to make room for a more cohesive and Dutch molded roster. Center back Maikel van der Werff was brought in from Vitesse, forward Joseph Gyau was uncovered in the depths of 3 Bundesliga, and a deal was struck with Chicago for the MLS rights to Celtic loanee Andrew Gutman to shore up at outside back.
There is no doubt in any of the players’ minds that they are playing for their jobs in these last three matches and that can be a powerful thing. That type of mentality led to Cincy potentially ruining Montreal’s playoff hopes in a gritty 1-0 away win against the Impact and it showed up in their midweek loss to Atlanta which many thought would be a blow out but remained a respectable 2-0 result for the defending champions. Moreover, the encounter against a golden boot chasing Josef Martinez and company saw Cincy keep neck and neck with the offensive powerhouse in terms of shots and chances created while boasting an impressive defensive intervention rate.
One Man’s Treasure: In an ongoing discussion of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club’s acquisition mechanisms, values, and connection to its academy, Andrew Gutman takes center stage this weekend. Gutman rejected an offer from the Fire this past offseason but his MLS rights were retained through the gesture. Eventually, the youngster landed a training stint with Celtic Glasgow which turned into a permanent deal and a trade of his MLS rights.
He’s been loaned out as Celtic undertake their 2019 season, but the Hinsdale native knows the higher ups at one of Europe’s most historic clubs keep weekly tabs on his growth. A superb performance against Atlanta can be capped off with another strong performance against Chicago, especially given Chicago’s prowess on the wings. There will also be a sense of personal pride on the line for Gutman as he faces the side that questioned his value. Keep an eye on his role in this one.
Weaknesses: Again, this column could get out of hand if we let it but it is important to keep in mind that FC Cincinnati really screwed up from a foundational standpoint. In a league that saw the additions of troubling expansion sides in Toronto, Orlando, and Minnesota, Cincy has sole ownership of the model for what not to do. Let’s see where they might struggle this weekend.
New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Perhaps Jans hasn’t fully adjusted to the league or been given the room, budget, and time to grow quite yet—his constant formational and tactical tweaks are evidence of this—but very little has changed under his tutelage. Prior to his arrival, Cincy had earned 0.73 PPG. Since his hiring, that average has dropped to 0.5 PPG. Sure, there is nothing “technically” left to play for and he is attempting to implement his own style, but in the midst of that, teams are finding FCC an easy target. They’ve allowed nineteen goals in seven matches under Jans guidance—a 2.71 goals per game concession average and one slightly above the 2.38 goals per game average prior to his arrival—despite his hand-picked changes to the back line and goal keeping order.
In a tangible example, their previous match against Atlanta saw them make the most basic of defensive errors on both of Martinez’s goals. Bertone and Gutman both drifted to cover Martinez as Pitti played him into space on the first—a communication mistake/organizational mistake; while Hagglund and van der Warff both overcommitted in their tackles for the second. Growing pains are one thing, but a complete lack of the basics is another. Only time will tell whether Cincy have made another mistake, but the signs are not good for their final three matches. Chicago have the chance to give Cincy the unwanted record of the worst goals against season tally in MLS history on Saturday and they’re sure to take it.
I Can’t Score for You: When asked what he thought about the first half on Wednesday, Jans responded that he was beyond happy with the way that his team created chances in the final third but lamented an inability to finish those chances. For as bad as Cincy have remained at the back, Jans half time observations paint a picture of Cincy moving forward. Double digit chance creation statistics in each of their past three matches—including an astounding fourteen shots against Atlanta—have rarely led to goals. By way of clarification, just two of their midweek shots were on target. Amaya and Ledesma have been successful in winning possession and distribution respectively, but none of the MLS journeymen employed to finish are converting their chances. Chicago’s recent ability to limit chances and keep clean sheets will certainly be even more troubling for an already worried Cincy side.
Prediction: Chicago will take advantage of a poor Cincy side to give themselves a fighting chance. Whether other results will solidify that chance is another matter entirely. Chicago 3-1 Cincinnati. Nikolic, Sapong, and Bornstein for the visitors. Gutman for the hosts.