Preseason Preview Part One: State of the Team
State of the Team
With the MLS season officially getting under way on April 17th, we are approaching that time where we finally have to pay attention to the team that will take the field. Transfer rumors, movie "reviews" that people can't understand, and twitter profile picture breakdowns will eventually stop (they will not) and we will all be stuck with a soccer team playing soccer week in and week out.
Which gets us to today: how is FC Cincinnati looking in 2021? This will be a regular series on Tuesdays, taking a look at FC Cincinnati's roster and what we can expect on the field in 2021. We'll dig into position battles, potential formations, new signings as they arrive, and what we can expect to see in 2021.
So for this first part, an overview is necessary. Where the heck is this team right now?
Here is the roster as it is currently constructed:
Cody Cropper, Ben Lundt, Beckham Sunderland, Przemyslaw Tyton
Saad Abdul-Salaam, Zico Bailey, Nick Hagglund, Ronald Matarrita, Tom Pettersson, Maikel can der Werff, Avionne Flanagan*
Frankie Amaya, Allan Cruz, Joseph-Claude Gyau, Haris Medunjanin, Ben Mines, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Caleb Stanko
Alvaro Barreal, Brenner, Calvin Harris, Franko Kovacevic, Yuya Kubo, Jurgen Locadia, Brandon Vazquez
* Not officially signed yet, but drafted
If this offense can't perform in 2021 then Njikamp and Stam need to be shown the door. And pushed through it swiftly. Breaking the transfer fee record for a striker on a promising young Brazilian should be enough to get your dad or uncle who only half-pays attention to FCC excited. Kubo, Locadia, and Brenner, assuming all three are on the roster on match day 1, ought to be the best attacking three in MLS. Young promising depth pieces on offense like Barreal and Harris will keep the pressure on the starters. Anyone looking for the orange and blue to sign another winger is the same person who takes all of the candy out of the "Please Take One" bowl when trick-or-treating.
The midfield looks a bit like a mess at the moment. Cruz and Medunjanin each are a costing the team the full budget charge, so you'd expect the money to end up on the field. Except if you do that, you can only play one of Mokotjo or Amaya, and both of them look like the two best midfielders on the team. And the midfield three involving both Medunkanin and Mokotjo will be extremely slow. Not impossible, but slow. Ben Mines and Stanko are good depth pieces to be sure. But there are four players who "should" be starting in three spots at the moment, with the expectation that the team is going to sign at least one, maybe three, more midfielders. Here's the FCC midfield plan:
The defense on the other hand looks very much the same. While there are "roomers" on the internet about a right-back, the only addition at the moment is Ronald Matarrita. Matarrita comes to Cincinnati from NYCFC where he was an attacking outside back who did little to contribute on defense. One possible wrinkle that has a lot of people, including some on the coaching staff, looking at is adding Joe Gyau on the right side to do the same thing. While Gyau did feature as a wingback a few times in 2020, it's not a position he has played much in his career. In fact he spent nearly his entire career in Germany as a leftwinger, which coincidentally describes more than one of my friends right after college.
The lack of defense on the outside of the backline makes the centerback pairing look like Hulk Hogan's chest after he beat Iraqi sympathizer Sargent Slaughter in Wreslemania 7... It's bare. Pettersson and van der Werff has always felt like backup options or at best stop-gap solutions. And yet, FCC hasn't been connected publicly with a centerback this off-season and roster spots are going fast to fill that void. You gotta trust Jaap Stam knows what to look for in a centerback and if this is what he's ok rolling into the season with, then so be it.
In goal, Tyton has shown himself to be serviceable in MLS while Cropper and Lundt both come with high ceilings and low floors. In the 5 season history of FC Cincinnati goalkeeping has never been an issue, and 2021 doesn't look to be changing anything there.
The FC are still well over a month away from playing any matches, and it wouldn't be surprising to see anyone move on from this roster. Here are some of the eligible bachelors who might left in April without a rose.
Easily the player most people will miss in our quiz, Franko is on loan from Hoffenheim as a striker. That means he takes up a senior roster spot and an international spot, to play a position where FCC has the most depth. Unless he really blows the socks off of the coaching staff in preseason, there's no reason to expect him to be on this roster. This becomes even more true if his international spot or senior roster spot are needed to bring in a defender or midfielder.
It is kind of amazing he is still on this roster as Brighton seem to be actively shopping him around the world. Brenner's signing is a very clear indication the team is done with Locadia as the main striker. Towards the end of 2020 Locadia did play more and more on the wing, a position he has played plenty in his career. If Brighton doesn't sell him to a new club between now and the summer, and Locadia does stay, having him on the wing along side Brenner could prove to be a deadly combination. Or he could lose his starting job to a college draftee.
This one is a bit of a wildcard. There is no indication from inside the club that Medunjanin will be on the move. He is 35 years old and was born in a country that literally doesn't exist anymore, so you know he won't have any trade value in the league. He also takes up an international spot. Oh and he makes the maximum amount allowed in the salary cap. What this recipe gives you is the perfect candidate for using your "once a season buy-out, get-out" option on a player's contract. In the last week, FCC has already been linked to midfielders Lucho Acosta, Kyle Scott, and Luan. If two midfielders sign, it'll be hard to justify keeping Medunjanin on this roster.
Where does this team need to improve? Here are the three main areas of need at the moment.
Again, the FC has gone the entire off-season now without even a whiff of a rumor around a centerback. It's worth keeping in mind that Pettersson and Hagglund showed really well towards the end of 2020. They were the two who started against Columbus Crew on October 14th where the eventual wooden spoon winners defeated the eventual MLS champions 2-1. Even if Jaap Stam and Gerrard Njikamp have the full confidence in these two to start, the depth behind them is lacking. van der Werff stuggled with injuries last year and if that continues in 2021 the backline will be as thin as a backline printed tifo.
Yes, everyone wants an attacking midfielder and sure, most fans are ready to ship out Locadia and Kubo for new players. But are we really ready to make Joe Gyau or Zico Bailey the everyday starter at right-back? Bailey didn't look out of place towards the end of last year, but he's still a raw product. And Gyau hasn't played more than a handful of games as an outside back. On top of that, if/when Matarrita leaves for national team duty with Costa Rica, the left back spot will be left to a second round draft pick that still hasn't been officially signed. That being said if Armando Méndez, the NFL linebacker cosplaying as an Uruguayan rightback, is indeed headed to Cincinnati, we will finally have our heir to the Dekel Keinan throne.
And here we are, the spot even your grandmother knows FCC needs to fill. An attacking midfielder to be the key playmaker on the field linking the midfield and attack. Last year a combination of Siem de Jong and Yuya Kubo failed spectacularly in this position. Just ask Taylor Twellman. And historically with FC Cincinnati, there really hasn't been a player who played this role. With the rumors out there of Lucho Acosta coming in, or, and I can't believe I'm typing this, we choose to believe in Gaston again, The FC will finally have their "Number 10". A prototypical Dutch midfield 3 will consist of a box-to-box midfielder like Mokotjo or Cruz, a defensive midfielder like Amaya or Stanko, and an attacking midfielder like this fabled "Number 10". If the stars can align and these pieces come together, Njikamp will finally have a the midfield he's been trying to build for two years.
What To Look For This Week
There are still plenty of moves that can be made for the next week. There is a real chance that 3 new players could be signed in the next few days or the team could wait to see how deals shake out before pulling the trigger on a player. Acosta is one that many people will be keeping an eye on. And just because he's been playing regularly for Atlas doesn't mean he's not coming to Cincinnati. Atlas are battling the new Mexican relegation equivalent, a steep fine, and he's been helping them pull clear of the bottom of the table. It makes sense they'd want to keep him to see where their position in the table ends up. Oh and please please please keep your eyes peeled for any defensive reinforcements, and let me know as soon as you find a scant scent of a rumor (not a scat scent mind you), I'd like to be able to sleep this week.