The hope, I would say, is that this weekend provides a reboot for FC Cincinnati. The Queen City club came into MLS in 2019 with a huge fanbase and similarly large expectations, and through four games they were living up to them, going 2-1-1 to open their inaugural season.
That was two years ago, and things were good. It feels like a million years ago, though, and things since then have not been good. Things, rather, have been bad. Cincy are just 8-10-38 with a -78 goal differential in 56 regular-season games following that promising four-game start, inflicting 24 months of on-field misery upon that still large but now impatient fanbase. Maybe more damning than the overall record: Of the 10 different coaches Cincy have beaten in MLS, eight of them were removed in the subsequent weeks or months (or in Frank De Boer’s case, days).
If you lose to FC Cincinnati, chances are you’re about to lose your job.
Cincy’s ownership and front office have not sat idly by. The coaches have been changed, the GM has been changed, the analytics department has been changed and the vast, vast majority of the roster has been changed. And it’s all mostly kept changing, with little to suggest that things are actually getting better.
You could even argue that things have gotten worse. FC Cincinnati have taken just one of the last 24 points on offer across the end of last year and the start of this one, and have won once in their past 15 games. That 15-game stretch represents 60 percent of Jaap Stam’s tenure as manager. This does not seem tenable.
And yet, hope arrives this weekend in the form of the glorious new TQL Stadium opener, when they host Inter Miami (4 pm ET | FOX & FOX Deportes). Consider it a second crack at a first impression, a reboot or rebirth of the sort that Sporting KC underwent 10 years ago when they opened their own beautiful stadium. Copying that blueprint has to be the model.
So how do Stam and GM Gerard Nijkamp fix everything that’s gone wrong? Well, they need to start by not focusing on “everything” and instead focus on the most basic thing: Get some pressure to the damn ball! Be hard to play against by getting the XI working with each other and forcing opponents into lower-percentage passes and out of high-leverage areas. Stop giving up so many goals because there is little to suggest, even after this winter’s massive outlay on attacking talent, that there’s enough firepower in the roster to win games 3-2.
Be it under Stam or any of their previous coaches, Cincy have not really been that kind of defensive team. Instead they’ve been a lot of this:
There's a lot of culpability to go around but I want to make one specific point here: It’s tough to blame forward Yuya Kubo for this because Yuya Kubo is, in fact, a forward. The Japanese international has spent the vast majority of his career as either a No. 9 or a support striker, with semi-frequent run outs on either wing. He has never regularly been deployed as a ball-winning No. 8 but now, because of the way the roster’s been constructed (and Allan Cruz’s lifelong residence in Stam’s doghouse), that’s Yuya’s spot.
The learning curve is steep and the numbers are painful. Using Second Spectrum’s tracking data we can take a look at just these zones, which are the ones you want do do your damnedest to own:
Cincy give up second-highest completion percentage, the third-highest completed passes per possession and defensively have the fifth-highest average distance from target — i.e., they’re chasing but they’re nowhere near the ball — through these zones. As a result opponents* have been dancing right through prime real estate.
(*) If there’s any silver lining here, Cincy fans, it’s that Miami are the only other team in the bottom five of all three of those metrics.
Overall they are second-to-last (behind Miami!) in passes allowed per possession, and dead last in both average starting and ending distance from goal. That means teams get on the ball closer to goal, and get off the ball via a shot, turnover or foul, closer to goal. That puts what we’ll call an “unreliable” backline and goalkeeper corps into a position where they have to scramble to make plays and they have just … not.
That backline is not without blame, obviously, and neither is the front line. Cincy’s issues are systemic; they apply pressure late in the possession (fourth-slowest), win possession within five seconds of a pressure third-least and within 10 seconds fifth-least. That confirms the eye test: When Cincinnati get pressure to the ball at any point it’s not in the sort of coordinated fashion that produces turnovers or even 50/50s. It’s more like 40/60s and, well, you lose 60 percent of those, don’t you?
It’s a lot to digest and it’s a lot to fix, but Stam, Nijkamp and the players have no choice. It genuinely won’t matter how good Brenner, Lucho Acosta, Calvin Harris and Isaac Atanga can be if the opponents set up shop in central midfield and are allowed to look like prime Barcelona every single week.
Right now that’s what FC Cincinnati are, and who they’ve been through basically their entire MLS existence. This weekend is a great chance to prove to that rabid fanbase of theirs — and more importantly, to themselves — that they can be something different, and something better.
Second Spectrum Numbers of the Week
Yes, Miami are Cincy-level in a lot of those metrics, and that ain’t great. We saw it this past weekend when Atlanta were able to get on the ball a ton and control about the first hour of what became a 1-1 draw in Fort Lauderdale, which is not the kind of result that will please Phil Neville & Co.
But Miami also wore Atlanta down and wrested control of the game away for the final half-hour, which has become a pattern for them.
Here is the context for understanding that: Miami allow 5.61 passes per possession, which is easily the most in the league. The gap between them in 27th and Cincy in 26th (5.05 passes allowed per possession) is about the same as the gap between Cincy and 16th-ranked Seattle (4.47). So Miami are very much an outlier in how many passes they let you hit.
They’re also an outlier in how long they wait until getting pressure to you, once again in dead last at 18.56 seconds. Nashville are 26th at 18.32, and then there’s a massive gap up to Orlando City in 25th at 14.56 seconds.
So they absolutely let you get comfy at the back and start knocking the ball around, but here’s where they’re an outlier in the other direction: they lead the league in pressures per possession at 2.53. Those long possessions are fine — knock it around to your heart’s content! But know that when you cross the line (usually about 45 yards from goal) you are hitting a pressing trigger and they’re going to come at you.
It’s not the most sophisticated thing in the world, but it’s working. Miami have been much more difficult to break down thus far this season than last, and by conceding half the field and playing at such a slow pace, they’re saving the legs of many of their most important players. They are also weaponizing the Florida heat, which doesn’t apply to this weekend’s contest, but will certainly apply in the weeks and months to come.
Young Player of the Week
Note: This isn’t necessarily the best young player of the week, just one that interests me.
Bear in mind that these are just highlights and I could pull highlights that make almost anyone look good, but also, I’m not trying to mislead you here. Nyeman combines Darlington Nagbe-esque press resistance with a Jackson Yueill-esque ability to pick out diagonals and the occasional long-ball. Pretty great combo to start from!
Nagbe and Yueill are also role models in other ways, though. I namechecked them because those two guys entered MLS with a ton of skill on the ball and not much in the way of defensive instincts. They worked hard on the latter in order to become two of the best deep-lying central midfielders in the league, and, well, Nyeman is going to have to travel the same path because right now he is flammable. He’s not a ball-watcher per se — he really wants to be around the ball, which is an attribute I always look for in young central midfielders — but he’s often a beat slow to react and actually do more than just “be around the ball.” Opponents are able to skip past him and bully him on 50/50s, which is not entirely unexpected when talking about a literal child going up against grown men.
Still, he is wise beyond his years in orchestrating the game from deep, which is to D.C.’s benefit. He’s the best on the team at completing passes out of central midfield in transition thus far (small sample size alert) as per Second Spectrum, and the value of those passes is increased by his ability to draw opposing defenders in, maintain possession and then cut them out of the play.
Nyeman’s likely to be back in the XI on Thursday night when injury-hit D.C. host the struggling Chicago Fire (8 pm ET | ESPN+).