In 2019 FC Cincinnati had a record breaking defense. Cincinnati took the inglorious record of having conceded the most number of goals in an MLS season, 75. While also finishing with an astonishing -44 goal differential, a number that was literally double the second worst team in the league that year Vancouver.

Then, in 2020, FC Cincinnati's defense finished middle of the pack.

And there wasn't a wholesale changing of the backline or keeper either. Tyton and Richey took the vast majority of starts in goal again and a back four of Gutman, Waston, van der Werff, and Deplange were the expected starters, all names from the disastrous 2019 defense.

Yes, Gutman and van der Werff joined part way through the 2019 season, but their arrival didn't see a sharp decline in goals conceded. Those fortunes in 2019 carried right on despite new additions and a new manager at that time.

Which is another point, despite the defense keeping many of the same pieces from 2019, and having a manager fired in the preseason, this defense made a remarkable turnaround.

With 36 goals conceded, there were 8 teams with a worse goals conceded mark. Three of them were even playoff teams. Three conceded just one goal less than Cincinnati. Placing Cincinnati in the middle of the pack in terms of goals allowed. When using Expected Goals Allowed Cincinnati finished with 11 teams worst than them.

Yes, a bang-on average defense isn't anything to get excited about. However when placed in the context of the 2019 season being abysmal, this level of turnaround is something to be optimistic about.

Now there were plenty of depth signings in 2020 which contributed to this number not being terrible. Saad Abdul-Salaam, Zico Bailey, Tom Pettersson, and Bobby Edwards all in some way contributed to the defensive effort. Not to mention various upgrades in the midfield. But outside of Pettersson nobody really saw extended playing time. Pettersson eventually saw more minutes than van der Werff who struggled with injuries last year. But even Nick Hagglund, a player some fans had written off after 2019, saw about twice as many minutes than Bailey or Abdul-Salaam.

Which brings us to 2021. What should we expect from a defense that turned around one of the worst seasons ever to being a defense that, by looking at the table, could have taken a team to the playoffs? Well, hmmm.

Gutman, Waston, Deplange, Garza, and Richey are all out of the team. Ronald Matarrita has been brought in at left back and while he is certainly an upgrade at the position, he is known much more for being an attacking threat rather than a defensive stalwart. Ben Lundt, the 2020 USL Goalkeeper of the year was recalled from his two year loan to replace Richey.

This gives us a work-inprogress defensive starting lineup of Matarrita, Pettersson, van der Werff, and Abdul-Salaam with Tyton expected to be in goal. A lot of progress was made with the defense last year, and with so much turnover fans will be left to hope that continuity at the manager position, one of the best defenders of all time in Jaap Stam mind you, will be able to keep improving the defensive unit.

But this is also a lesson for the offense. FC Cincinnati scored a pathetic 12 goals in 2020. The offensive pieces brought in didn't perform as anyone expected them, and the goal differential suffered for it. But if 2020 is a lesson in continuity and trusting a coaching staff to make improvements, there's evidence there to be optimistic about players turning it around.

If Barreal is able to play more and is given creative license, it wouldn't be surprising to see his performances get better. Kubo was forced into the midfield many times last year where he struggled, if he is able to stay up top or out on the wings, it's reasonable to expect many more goals from him in 2021. For Locadia, if he's unable to turn things around his loan can end and the team can bring in another striker in the summer.

A woeful defense in 2019 was able to turn things around with similar personnel in one year, we'll see if the offense can follow suit.