It's still early in Jaap Stam's tenure as the head coach of FC Cincinnati, but following a dreadful start to the MLS is Back Tournament, the defensive strides made by the club during the Group Stage have been remarkable to watch.
After getting blasted 4-0 by Columbus Crew SC in their tournament opener, FC Cincy became arguably the most surprising team to make it through to the Knockout Stage, beating Atlanta United 1-0 and the New York Red Bulls 2-0 to punch their ticket. The victories weren't necessarily pretty. FC Cincy were the beneficiaries of a first-half red card against Atlanta and didn't exactly look like an attacking juggernaut against RBNY.
Still, back-to-back clean sheets is nothing to scoff at for a team with a reputation as one of the league's poorest defensive units dating back to last year's expansion season. Speaking with reporters on a Sunday conference call ahead of his club's Round of 16 match against the Portland Timbers on Tuesday (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada), Stam said he's pleased with how his group compartmentalized and learned from the defeat to the Crew, adding that he credits his players for taking their chances in addition to the improved defense.
Asked about his initial impressions of playing under Stam and what has led to the recent strides, Cincinnati midfielder Caleb Stanko credited the Dutchman with figuring out and starting to implement a style that fits with the players on the roster, adding that he only expects further progress as the team gets more matches under its belt.
"Of course you’re pleased in not conceding and scoring yourself," Stam said. "The first game, we’ve all seen that, and what happened for ourselves. We could have done better in that particular game but we didn’t. You need to learn from the things you haven’t done well, and that’s what we’ve done. In the second and third game we’ve picked it up very quickly, got the clean sheet, but also scored our goals, and of course we’re very happy in doing that. We want to keep on progressing and making things even more easy for yourself if that’s possible. Of course you need to play against opposition that has a lot of quality, so that makes it difficult.
"But we believe in ourselves and what we can do and what we’ve shown the last couple of games and hopefully we can make progress there and on Tuesday as well."
"I think he brings a very intense, tactical, disciplined approach to the game, which I really appreciate," Stanko said. "That hasn't always been the case with past coaches, which is just a different style. But it definitely plays into my style. I really respect the guy so much because of what he's done as a player. And I think he's really implemented a style that fits our team personally as opposed to bringing in a style that doesn't necessarily match the qualities of the players. So it's been so far really good to work with him and I'm excited for whatever the future holds."
The improved showing from Cincinnati isn't lost on Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese, who said he's not viewing the match as easy on paper by any stretch, given what he's seen from Stam's group the last two games.
"It’s going to be a challenging match because they first make sure that you don’t find space, they make sure first not to concede," Savarese said. "The more they go forward, their confidence grows and there’s more that they can do now also with the ball. We see that they don’t shy away from some things that have become patterns when they have the ball. The main concern for them is to make sure they are very solid defensively, and that’s going to be a challenge for us.
"We have to move the ball well, we have to make sure we find the right areas in order to unbalance them. We’ve analyzed different things we can do with the ball in order for us to try to find the space and that’s what we’re working on. We’re going to face this challenge, but we have to be very careful, because it’s a team that can complicate [matters], and it’s not going to be easy for us to break them down."