Preseason Preview Part Three: Defending The Defense
Defending the Defense
The 2019 season for FC Cincinnati was historically bad, and left a lasting impression on fans and pundits around the league. The impression was set, FC Cincinnati had a terrible defense. That's the narrative. In 2020 when FCC once again found themselves at the bottom the table, everyone knew already that FCC's defense was the reason why.
Except, everyone was wrong.
Turns out, FC Cincinnati's defense wasn't terrible in 2020. Now don't confuse "wasn't terrible" with "good", they did not have a good defense in 2020. But they had an ok defense in 2020. That distinction is important because it can help explain how and why the front office has been building the roster in 2021 and why maybe, just maybe, they haven't signed a ton of defensive reinforcements.
When you look at the Expected Goals Against stats for 2020, FC Cincinnati ranked 5th worst in MLS. Its worth pointing out here that 5th worse is certainly not dead last, where Cincinnati finished in the standings in the last two years. A moral victory. FCC had 30.5 expected goals allowed last season and actually let in 36. That tells us the team was unlucky, when averaged out they should not have ended up conceding 6 extra goals on the season. 30 goals against would have put FCC's defense around 7th in the Eastern Conference, an average defense when it comes to giving up goals.
No, what well and truly ruined FC Cincinnati's season last year was the embarrassing 12 goals scored. The toothless offense put Cincinnati fans on a non-stop flight to the bottom of the table. The inability to present a meaningful threat on offense knew teams didn't have to fear an FC Cincinnati offense.
In fact, FCC faced the 7th fewest shots in MLS last year. While that could be a combination of teams not being able to take shots against a stout defense and teams willing to give the ball to FCC and watch them flop around the field like a level 5 Magikarp, FC Cincinnati sustained a 50% possession rate through the entire season. Meaning teams did not concede possession to FC Cincinnati at an abnormally high rate, the teams shared possession equally.
In 30% of Cincinnati's matches they were able to keep a clean sheet. That's 7 matches, and the league leaders only had 9 clean sheets. That is not the stat of a defense that is failing. This was a competent defense. We can only imagine how the season would have gone if they could have swapped two of the matches against Columbus with a team like Miami or Atlanta.
So what has changed between 2020 and 2021 on defense?
Tyton is still in goal, and the centerbacks are expected to be a combination of Hagglung, Pettersson, and van der Werff. The notable subtraction here is Kendall Waston. Waston was a fantastic player for FC Cincinnati, but in 2020 he started to show signs of aging and breaking down. Speed is what would normally kill Cincinnati's defense. van der Weff is also not a very fast defender, which leads me to believe your week one starters will be Pettersson on the left and Hagglund on the right side of a centerback pairing.
On the left side we see our first real upgrade in the starting lineup on defense. Ronald Matarita replaces Andrew Gutman. Gutman was very active on the left side. Gutman was very stout defensively but that's about all he could offer. Playing as an outside back in a 4-3-3 is very demanding since those outside backs need to also be the width in the attack as well as play good defense. Gutman for example only connected two completed crossed into the penalty box on the season. Greg Garza had more and played in 13 fewer games. Offensive production in this case can offset defensive worries by forcing teams to play defense against FC Cincinnati. Behind Matarita? Don't look behind Matarita. And please try to ignore that he'll be spending a lot of time away with his national team.
On the right side of the defense? Well its anyone's guess at this point. Smart money is on Joe Gyau to become a right back in 2021, with Zico Bailey backing him up. That might work, for all of the reasons Matarita is an upgrade over Gutman. But Matarita is also a defender who has put in time at the position. Gyau has not. If he can get up to speed on the defensive side of his new responsibilities, he could become the next Antonio Valencia. If not, it'll be Zico Bailey's shot or a summer signing to bail out the team.
There is still work to be done on this FC Cincinnati roster. A few weeks ago I said I would not worry about this roster until March 15th. That was yesterday. And I am not worried. Upgrades on offense and the midfield have been made. And the defense wasn't the worst in the league last year. Another offseason under Jaap Stam, one of the best centerbacks in his day, should help drill the tactics needed to see out a successful campaign. But another centerback and probably another right back is going to be needed to really feel like this defense is complete.