Even With Its Current Roster, Expect an Improved FC

More than two months after the end of the 2021 season, the FC just announced its initial preseason roster, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the 2022 team looks a lot like the team that just brought home another wooden spoon. You could be forgiven for thinking that, in fact, because it’s true.

Among the players currently under contract, only Alec Kann, Dominique Badji, Ray Gaddis, Johnny Nelson, and draft pick Roman Celentano have not been part of a last place FC Cincinnati team. (“New” signing Alvas Powell was part of the 2019 roster.) In all, FC currently has 20 players returning from last year’s squad.

So, to repeat my phrasing a bit, you could be forgiven for thinking that the 2022 season is going to finish exactly as the 2021 season. But, and I mean this sincerely, I think you’d be wrong.

Now, to address something on everyone’s minds, I do think that Albright is going to bring in a couple of midfielders, so the roster to start the season shouldn’t look exactly as it looks today. But, that said, I think we should look forward to a much-improved season even if the roster stays as is.

Why? Well, I’m getting to that.

Goalkeeping

Everyone knows the goalkeeping for FC last year was bad, but do you want to know how bad? According to FBRef.com, FC’s Post-Shot Expected Goals Minus Goals Allowed was worst in the league at negative 14.7. That’s a mouthful of a stat, but it basically means that FC’s keepers gave up about 15 more goals than they should have. The next-worst team in the league was DC United, at negative 7.0. That’s right, FC’s goalkeepers gave up more than twice as many excess goals as the second-worst team. 

On the other hand, the analytics love new signing Alec Kann. With the caveat that he wasn’t the starter, so his stats are small sample size, his Post-Shot Expected Goals Minus Goals Allowed per 90 minutes last season was a positive 0.42, meaning that he let in about half a goal fewer per game than he should have. That is good for 99th percentile in the league; by comparison, Matt Turner’s “per 90” stat was 0.21.

I am not saying that Kann is as good as Matt Turner. There is a reason that he was not Atlanta’s starter. But what I am saying is that there is every reason to believe that he might be at least average, and for FC, having an average goalkeeper is a 15-goal improvement on its own.

The Central Defenders Have Met Each Other

Right now, FC has four center backs on the roster: Geoff Cameron, Gustavo Vallecilla, Tyler Blackett, and Nick Hagglund. Of those four, only Hagglund was on the team for the first game of 2021. On the other hand, Cameron and Vallecilla were starting only days after they were signed. Blackett did not join the team until August.

This year, all of them have the benefit of a full preseason together. Hopefully, they will take advantage of it.

If You Think About It, a Coach Is Like a Fourth DP

For the first time in team history, the FC has an honest-to-god MLS coaching staff. From rising star Pat Noonan to MLS legend Dom Kinnear to nepotism hire Kenny Arena to “not as nice as Jack Stern but maybe a better coach the jury is still out” Paul Rogers, the management team finally consists of guys who other teams would actually pay money to coach for them.

Last year, Jaap Stam brought a rigid, complicated set of offensive ideas that were ill-suited for the players on the roster, and frankly that probably would be impossible to implement in a salary cap league. Remember, it’s not just Lucho, Kubo, and Brenner running the system – eventually, the ball will find its way to the foot of a guy making $80,000. If that guy can’t play your system, then it won’t work in MLS.

On a recent episode of Allocation Disorder, Bobby Warshaw explained that there is a mountain of statistical evidence that the best way to play in MLS is to just boot the ball forward and run after it. Now, that style might offend the aesthetic sensibilities of someone like Jaap Stam or Frank de Boer, but my guess is it suits Pat Noonan just fine.

In addition, MLS experiences brings an understanding of the MLS player. What is the MLS player? It’s Matt Polster. It’s a guy on a cheap salary who is good at exactly one thing, but is probably also pretty fit, so you sign him and tell him to only do that one thing and also to run a lot. Matt Polster, a guy who could not get a game in Scotland but this past season played 30 games for the best regular-season team in MLS history. Because Bruce Arena understands MLS enough to know that you don’t need well-rounded players, or at least, you don’t need all well-rounded players – sometimes, you need a guy to do one thing, so you find a guy who can do only one thing.

I have confidence that Albright, Noonan, and the gang are going to work toward creating a good MLS team, and not a bad Eredivisie team.

We Have a Right Back; Maybe Two

Last year, the team did not have a single player on the roster who you could call a right back with a straight face. For much of the season, the team played Joe Gyau – very much a winger – in the position. Zico Bailey, who has shown some signs of progress and might very well have a bright future, is not an MLS right back here and now today. Nick Hagglund saw time there. Hell, Calvin Harris saw time there.

This year, the FC has Ray Gaddis and Alvas Powell. Powell acquitted himself pretty well for Philadelphia in the playoffs last year, and Gaddis was an absolute lockdown defender who started most of Philly’s games in their 2020 Supporters’ Shield season. I expect either one to be a massive upgrade from what we saw last season.

I know there are some misgivings. People remember Alvas Powell as a somewhat disappointing player in the 2019 FC season, but remember, no one had a particularly good year that year. If I had to guess, I’d say that Powell’s more likely the very useful MLS player that he was before and after FC than who we saw against Seattle in 2019. And it bodes well that Powell spent last season in Philadelphia, where both Albright and Noonan got to see him up close.

Gaddis is a bit different and maybe more complicated case. For those who don’t know, Gaddis retired from soccer last Spring and sat out all of last season. Now, I am not going to speculate as to what was behind Gaddis’s brief retirement, but from what I can tell it was not because his best days were behind him. Assuming that he is fit, he should immediately be the best right back in FC’s short history.

Aside from the retirement concern, people have pointed out that Gaddis does not offer much offensively. That may be the case, but I would suggest that a team that gave up 74 goals last season, which was comfortably the most in the Eastern Conference, has more pressing concerns than whether its right back sufficiently contributes to the offense.

Remember how above I said good MLS teams have guys on cheap contracts who are very good at exactly one thing? Maybe a low-budget right back who is very good at defense is exactly what this team needs.

Brenner Mark 2

It’s been said that foreign players, and particularly young foreign players, need a full season in MLS before they hit their stride. Last year, Brenner certainly didn’t live up to his price tag, but I think that this year we will start to see the player we were promised.

Even in what was an otherwise-disappointing season, Brenner scored eight goals, which is the most in a season for any FC player in MLS. And this was on a team that had no coherent offensive gameplan, which scored only 37 goals the entire year.

By contrast, Chicharito – who scored 17 goals in 2021 – managed only one goal in 11 games in his first season for LA Galaxy, on a much more competent team. Adam Buksa – 16 goals in 2021 – scored 5 goals in 20 league games for New England Revolution in 2020, with arguably the best player in the league feeding him.

Robert Beric, rated by Extratime before the season as a top five striker in MLS, also scored eight goals last year.

All of these players are several years older than Brenner. I think there’s a chance that a 20-goal striker in Brazil can be a productive player in MLS, and I think that Brenner will prove himself this year.

So We’ll Be Good, Yeah?

No. Not with the roster as it currently stands. But we will be better. Even if it still won’t feel very good.