We take a break from positional previews to look toward the weekend. Fear not, there’s plenty more broad-view season preview content on the way. Photo courtesy FC Cincinnati.
FC Cincinnati is one of the more fascinating teams heading into the 2021 MLS season. After one of the worst two-year stretches imaginable, the club will open a beautiful new stadium and has invested in its roster like never before. Opening against an old USL rival in Nashville SC… lots of storylines to unpack.
I checked in with Laurel Pfahler of Queen City Press for the local scoop on FCC.
Tim Sullivan: For the first time, Cincinnati has received national attention for investing in its roster. Obviously the intention was not “be so bad most of our front-office staff gets fired or re-assigned after a year,” but was the opening of the stadium always sort of intended to be the time that the product on the field got this type of monetary commitment?
Laurel Pfahler: Yes. Club officials have been saying the past two years they wanted to make a splash going into the opening of the new stadium. Ideally that would have meant building some momentum last year with better results on the pitch, but in opening the West End Stadium, FC Cincinnati now has control of revenue and the ability to focus more spending on the roster. There also is even more incentive to get fans hyped about the team – it would be devastating to spend $250 million on a shiny new stadium and then not be able to fill seats (whenever larger crowds are allowed). The on-field results now need to match the investment FCC is making off the pitch, and honestly, the poor results in the past probably made it so the club had to overspend to get some of the players that can make a difference.
TS: With that said, the big incoming names are obviously Brenner and Luciano Acosta. What are the club’s expectations for that duo in year one?
LP: There are a lot of expectations on this duo for sure, as the two most expensive signings this offseason for a team that scored 12 goals in 2020. They appear to be building good chemistry already from what we can tell from the preseason (only one match was streamed for fans/media to watch, but there were some video clips of other friendlies), and I don’t think it was a coincidence that weeks after Brenner signed, FC Cincinnati finalized a deal to bring in a No. 10 that could speak his native language. Acosta is the lone teammate of Brenner’s who can speak Portuguese and that has been so helpful in Brenner’s transition.
I would say the pressure is mostly on Acosta, though. He’s been in the league before and fills the key piece that has been missing on FC Cincinnati’s roster the past two years – a proven playmaker at the No. 10 spot. Although he was inconsistent with D.C. United, he showed some magic in 2018 especially and that’s what FCC needs from him.
The club has tried to temper expectations for Brenner because of his young age (21) and having to adjust to the league while playing outside of his home country of Brazil for the first time. However, Cincinnati didn’t drop $13 million on a project. The hope is that his knack for finishing at Sao Paulo translates quickly in MLS, and so far he looks up to the challenge.
TS: How are the new acquisitions expected to fit in chemistry-wise with a roster that includes some lesser-known signings who were important pieces of last year’s squad?
LP: This wasn’t a lesser-known signing, but Jurgen Locadia is the player that should benefit the most from the arrival of Brenner, Acosta and even new left back Ronald Matarrita. Locadia stood out right away last year, but then the season shut down for four months, he got injured days before the return to play and never was able to really get his footing back. Now the spotlight is off him to some extent and he has players around him who can help put him in positions to be more successful. In switching to the left wing, he’s also in a comfortable spot where most of his goals came from with PSV Eindhoven.
Unfortunately, though, he suffered a thigh injury this preseason and didn’t get more than one match with his new teammates. If he plays Saturday, it will be coming off the bench – but he scored off the bench in his debut last year and could be looking for a repeat performance.
Right winger Alvaro Barreal also is expected to add to what potentially could be a really strong attack. He played five games as a summer window transfer and now should be a little more comfortable – plus, he spends a lot of his time off the field with Brenner and Acosta.
TS: It sort of went under the radar because of how inept the attack was, but Jaap Stam managed to cobble together a pretty good defense last year. How did he get FCC set up for success? Who’s a key defensive piece who could be the difference between success and failure at the back?
LP: Last year, Stam learned quickly that he didn’t have the types of players he needed to run the system the way he wanted, but he adapted by switching to a 5-3-2 and bunkering down a bit. That gave the defense a chance to build some confidence after allowing a record 75 goals in 2019, and he was able to get more out of the defense than I think was expected. In rebuilding the defense this year, Stam wanted to shift to more mobile centerbacks (hence the departure of the more physical Kendall Waston) and fullbacks who could really make an impact getting forward into the attack, which led to the acquisition of Matarrita and switching winger Joe Gyau to right back.
Matarrita was the big addition on defense, but there are still questions at center back with three returning players who were a part of an underachieving roster in 2020. I think Nick Hagglund will have a big role early on in how successful the defense is, especially with a back line that doesn’t appear overpowering. He came on strong late last season getting a chance to show what he could do in Stam’s system and really surprised with two MLS Team of the Week honors. FCC will need more of that.
TS: The gap between performance on the field and performance with community support has been a hallmark of this team through two seasons. Is it possible that, even with a sparkling new cathedral of the sport, that gap closes a bit?
LP: Fans in Cincinnati have endured two challenging seasons, so I hope for their sake the on-field performance rises to match the level of support the club has achieved. This season is critical for closing that gap. I think with the amount of spending this offseason, the club has intrigued fans whose support might have been wavering after back-to-back last-place finishes, but I don’t see the more casual fans continuing to shell out money for tickets and merchandise without better results some-coming. People want to see the new stadium this season so that helps, too, but I do think FCC is putting together a roster that can be more successful this season. I think it could be a slow start but if fans have some patience, Stam will get more from this group as the season progresses.
TS: What do you expect from Saturday’s game (including a score prediction if you’re comfortable giving one)?
LP: I think FC Cincinnati will give Nashville’s defense some trouble, but I also think the Orange and Blue could struggle with Nashville’s counterattacks. This defense still has so many questions with Gyau being new, Matarrita missing two weeks this preseason while with the Costa Rican national team and a lack of depth at center back with just two expected to be available this weekend. I could see Nashville absorbing pressure and then punishing that back line on counters. The key will be in the midfield for both teams, I think, and without Frankie Amaya in there as kind of the glue, FCC is relying on winger Yuya Kubo making a big step in Year 2 now at the No. 8 spot – unless Stam suddenly prefers Allan Cruz.
Maybe I’m playing it safe here, but I could see this one being a 2-2 draw.