In terms of its MLS life, FC Cincinnati will be hoping the third time is the charm.
The 2021 preseason camp, by default, has been the calmest of FCC’s MLS era after the rushed inaugural campaign in 2019 and a dramatic preseason coaching change in 2020.
The only drama to speak of, midfielder Frankie Amaya reportedly forcing his departure, is light work compared to what the team is usually enduring in its preseason.
Head coach Jaap Stam, who debuted with the team in the Orlando bubble during last year’s MLS is Back tournament, will not be afforded any excuses after a full training camp in charge and a pricey roster at his disposal.
Obviously, plenty went wrong in his foray but the seeds were planted for this moment, where the team is hopeful it can finally get it right.
With so much change, it is difficult to get a sense of how competitive the team will be, but the roster is loaded with newcomers and a handful of players moving to new positions.
If you ask around, the objective can be quite simple.
“I want Cincinnati to not be the wooden spoon joke that people have been making, and show that we have what it takes,” defender Nick Hagglund told SBI.
Taking the step up to shake up the Eastern Conference should be achievable, but the questions are about to what degree is accurate to expect. Newcomer Luciano Acosta knows the team needs to pay its fans back for last year’s effort in a hurry.
“I know last year was a tough year for Cincinnati,” Acosta told SBI in Spanish. “So, we will try to remedy that with reaching the playoffs. From there, we will keep fighting. We know that when a team reaches playoffs, they turn into a different team, every game in playoffs becomes a final.”
Will FC Cincinnati be hanging with the Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union, and the likes when it’s time to decide the East? Historically, the team hasn’t given you anything to support a confident “yes”.
After a massive spending spree, would simply challenging for one of the last playoff spots be good enough? You’d get plenty of different answers.
Once again, the year will be primarily about discovery and building an identity, but there is no reason the team cannot be competitive while trying to do so.
“We’re all in a good space,” Joe Gyau told SBI. “Everybody is ready to get the season underway and I think you’re gonna see a different team,”
Different is the key word. FC Cincinnati just needs to be different.
Judgment day will be on April 17 against Nashville SC in the long-awaited debut of the series in MLS.
Here is a closer look at FC Cincinnati heading into 2021:
2021 FC Cincinnati Season Preview
2020 Finish: 14th in Eastern Conference (4-4-15, 16 points)
Key Additions: Luciano Acosta, Brenner, Ronald Matarrita, Ben Mines
Key Losses: Frankie Amaya, Kendall Waston, Andrew Gutman, Mathieu Deplagne
Newcomer to Watch: Brenner
The 21-year-old Brazilian represents the biggest investment the club has ever made. He is the latest to ride the merry-go-round of striking options the team has tried, but he can be different because he has better pieces around him, specifically a playmaker in fellow newcomer Acosta.
It’s FC Cincinnati, still. Be as skeptical as you’d like, but the plan is to elevate the striker and make some money in the process, a situation the team hasn’t been in before, but needs to execute for some marketplace reputation.
Pressure is On: Jürgen Locadia
The headlining story heading into 2020 was the addition of Locadia, and how it was going to go a long way in improving an anemic offense.
The result? One goal from the run of play in his debut.
Perhaps it was more of the tired narrative that success in Europe is guaranteed to continue when moving to MLS, maybe it was simply the result of having to move across the world in the strangest year ever.
Either way, expectations were not met and there’s no denying that the ego will take a hit when the team brings in another DP in your position while you’re still there. His revised loan plan expires in the summer and another unproductive year will not help him stick in MLS, or entice suitors elsewhere.
If everyone, especially the newcomers, meet their expectations, FCC will leave the Eastern Conference cellar.
It can be said for every team, but competing for a playoff spot should be the objective. Once again, Cincinnati has gone through an overhaul of sorts, making it difficult to confidently assess.
What we do know, is the attacking unit looks solid on paper.
$13 million dollar man Brenner is the new center forward, Locadia will try to repair his reputation while holding down the left wing, and 2020 addition Álvaro Barreal should get the nod on the right.
In Locadia’s case, the move to the wing is not a reinvention by any means. He registered starts as a winger in separate stages of his career, and for FCC, it’s where he ended up at the end of last year.
Of course, the addition of Luciano Acosta headlines the midfield.
For the first time in the MLS era, FC Cincinnati figures to be working with an above average no. 10. The link with Brenner is potent, and the signing is a real win-win for both parties.
One item to note about Acosta is that he joined Cincinnati after racking up 23 appearances with Atlas who were mid-season in Liga MX at the time, which hasn’t allowed for much rest, so don’t be too surprised to see a little preemptive rotation or workload management here and there.
That said, he knows the league, is about as experienced as you could ask for at age 26, and is aiming high.
“We are going to fight to be one of the best offensive teams in MLS.” Acosta said.
The supporting midfield is questionable. There is talent, but simultaneously, a change of plans.
2020 midseason addition Kamohelo Mokotjo is a starting lock after a nice showing in his debut, Frankie Amaya’s reported departure creates space for Yuya Kubo to open the season in his place.
“It’s been something I’ve been thinking of for a long time already.” Stam said. “And knowing Yuya and what his qualities are and what he can do, he’s been doing very, very well for us in this preseason, he’s very comfortable in what he’s doing is very comfortable and what I’m asking from him.”
Haris Medunjanin, Caleb Stanko, and Allan Cruz will also be getting minutes as the primary players relied on for depth. New York Red Bulls product Ben Mines, 20, should also figure to be in the equation from time to time.
On the injury front, the only player known to be sidelined is centerback Maikel Van der Werff.
So, Nick Hagglund and Tom Petersson will be the ones in the center of the defense to open things up in 2021. The headlining addition of the unit Ronald Matarrita will be on the left, and Gyau will be on the right.
Yes, you read that last line correctly. In case you missed it, the experiment started last season, and the progression was impressive enough for him to get the nod as the full-time option in 2021.
Niether Gyau or Matarrita will have pause about going forward when the opportunities are there, and that dynamic seems to have been fully explored, giving FCC some new tricks up its sleeve.
“Towards the end of last year we had the idea of what we wanted, and maybe we didn’t exactly have the players that we wanted to execute those positions. I think Joe and Ronald are able to do a job defensively as well,” said Hagglund. “Obviously Joe, turning from a winger to a right back, he has pace, he has the ability to recover on anything, and so I think it’s more or less what we were doing last year. But the execution, the connections, and the ideas are more solidified with the players that that are available.”
On paper, you might not like the idea of FC Cincinnati’s defense taking on more risk, but Matarrita’s addition is a clear upgrade from last year’s Andrew Gutman/Greg Garza platoon, and Gyau offers much more in his game than his predecessor Mathieu Deplagne.
Overall, it should be a major improvement. There is room for a difference-making starter in the center. The team was searching for one in the offseason and a headliner could come in the summer. For now, there should be healthy competition in the depth squad comprised of Saad Abdul-Salaam, Zico Bailey, 2020 draft pick Avionne Flanagan, and late offseason addition Gustavo Vallecilla.
Przemysław Tytoń returns in goal as one of the few examples of lineup stability. He’s had spells of injuries in the last couple of seasons, though. MLS veteran Cody Cropper will be the next man in up that event this year.
In the end, FC Cincinnati has a better roster than last year. That was also said last year of 2019. You get the sense that the team is going to be much, much better, but how high is it fair to shoot?
For their own sakes, high. Considering the team’s spending has left it with little room for any more extravagant additions for now, everyone will need to be buying in to make 2021 the first respectable year in MLS.
If the team fails to be competitive, you’re looking at a scenario where it will have to clean house, again.
2021 FC Cincinnati Roster
Goalkeepers: Cody Cropper, Ben Lundt, Beckham Sunderland, Przemysław Tytoń
Defenders: Saad Abdul-Salaam, Zico Bailey, Avionne Flanagan, Joseph-Claude Gyau, Nick Hagglund, Ronald Matarrita, Tom Pettersson, Gustavo Vallecilla, Maikel van der Werff
Midfielders: Luciano Acosta, Frankie Amaya, Alvaro Barreal, Allan Cruz, Calvin Harris, Yuya Kubo, Haris Medunjanin, Ben Mines, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Caleb Stanko
Forwards: Isaac Atanga, Brenner, Franko Kovačević, Jürgen Locadia, Brandon Vazquez