FC Cincinnati had a deliriously dysfunctional 2019 season then somehow managed to ratchet it up for Year 2, before dialing it back a bit in Year 3 but still ending up in the same old spot.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

Nobody’s even managed three Wooden Spoons in a row before. As I’m writing this Cincy haven’t clinched it, but they are strong favorites to do so given the cushion Austin and Toronto have.

So it’s another year, another last-place finish, another front office and coaching overhaul, another offseason rebuild. You can set your watch to it.

Formation and tactics

Jaap Stam cycled through a 5-4-1, a 3-5-2, a 4-3-3, a 4-1-4-1 and a 4-2-3-1, playing mostly out of a mid or low block. At no point did they look significantly better in one formation than they did in any of the others.

In attack they mostly tried to funnel things through Luciano Acosta. But Acosta also had to drop back a ton in order to progress the ball upfield because Cincy weren’t good at that part of the game, and that part of the game’s pretty important

I’m not sure any of this matters, though. Stam’s been fired, there’s a new GM (good luck, Chris Albright!), and there will be a new head coach with new principles of play next year.

For what it's worth, Albright said in an interview during Wednesday night's loss that the new coach would be named by December, and that he wants the team to play a midfield diamond. Expect them, in other words, to try to look like the Union.

Highlights

Well, they won the offseason last year, right? Then-GM Gerard Nijkamp got himself a blank check and got to spending real quick, and the fans liked that.

As for an in-season highlight, other than a little late-spring feistiness, the obvious choice is the 2-0 home win over Toronto on September 11. That finally – finally, after four months!!! – gave Cincy their first three-pointer at their gorgeous, brand new stadium.

That is the team’s only win since June. It’s been a long year in Cincy, man.

Lowlight

I’m tempted to put the TQL opener in which they rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie Inter Miami 2-2 in the 82nd minute, only to gakk up the game-winner three minutes later and take a 3-2 loss, but that really wasn’t it. Hope in the fanbase truly did spring eternal after that game despite the brutal ending, and they actually followed it up with their first win (and only good stretch) of the year.

So no, as disappointing as that loss to Miami was, that’s not the right call. The right call is what happened two months later, when “Hell is Real” became all too apt a description for the Cincy season

TQL Stadium was once again the scene of the crime, but this time it was Cincy who took a 2-0 lead. And then Columbus went down a man just before the break, and if you’re playing 11-v-10 at home with a multi-goal lead that’s three points, right

Wrong. Cincy, even with the man advantage, barely threatened in the second half. And of course they found a way to cough up two goals that they just shouldn’t have, by any measure

And then their biggest rival’s head coach and fans did this:

Cincy have taken just eight of 57 points available since that game. That collapse against the Crew sent them directly into the toilet.

Revelation

For the third straight year the answer is “nobody,” which is horrifying given that they’ve had a No. 1 and a No. 2 overall draft pick and have signed a bunch of U22 Initiative guys. Cincy do have some decently talented kids on this roster, but have shown absolutely no ability to develop talent at any point in their three years of MLS existence.

The closest I can get to describing someone as a “revelation” is Acosta. During his D.C. United days he would sulk and often get waaaaaay too selfish when things weren’t going well. For Cincy he’s been a model professional and has looked like a true leader on the field.

He’s a worthy centerpiece. Cincy fans should be happy about that.

Disappointment

Brenner wasn’t ready, the defense was a mess and Stam never put the promising young wingers into spots where they could succeed, nor did he let them play through rough patches.

But in truth, the biggest disappointment is that Nijkamp got $20 million to build a team last offseason and kinda forgot about central midfield or goalkeeper. So the best CM on the team has been Yuya Kubo, who was signed as a DP attacker and has never regularly played CM in his life, while in net the one-two punch of Kenneth Vermeer and Prezmyslaw Tyton cost Cincy points basically all season long, up to and including Wednesday night.

Anyway, I admire the hell out of Kubo for putting his head down and trying to do the dirty work. I can’t imagine this is what he signed on for two years ago.

I have tried, repeatedly, to wrap my head around the way this roster has been built and unbuilt over the past three years, and have never quite managed it.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Acosta (AM): I was convinced this would be a disaster of a signing but it’s been the opposite. The dude’s been a workhorse even as nothing around him has functioned as it should.
  • Brenner (CF): Seven goals in 2300 minutes is not exactly a $13 million ROI, but the young Brazilian works hard and I could see him becoming an average MLS No. 9 by next year if things break right.
  • Alvaro Barreal (W): Just 3g/3a in 2000 minutes for the 21-year-old. Again, that’s not the type of ROI you’d hope for, but Barreal has talent and should improve with some stability and a better framework around him.
  • Isaac Atanga (W): Another 21-year-old imported attacker who hasn’t been productive enough, with 1g/2a in about 900 minutes. But he’s got talent.
  • Gustavo Vallecilla (CB): Like the previous three guys on this list, Vallecilla is a young (22) import who’s struggled. I don’t think hopes of year-over-year improvement are misplaced, though.

Offseason Priority:

Culture eats strategy and tactics for breakfast and so far the culture at Cincy has been one of constant dysfunction, upheaval, losing and recriminations. The biggest and most important job for Albright and whoever he hires as head coach – and yes, it should be Albright making that decision – is to change that. That’s the offseason priority, and it’s not just about making sure it’s a pleasant environment to work in. It’s about getting more out of the people already there.

Forget about all the U22 Initiative guys and think about this: Ben Lundt, who was the USL Goalkeeper of the Year last year and who passes the eye test, the boxscore numbers test and the underlying numbers test with flying colors, is literally on the FC Cincy roster and has been since 2019. And they’re yet to play him a single MLS minute.

A team with a more sensible approach to roster-building and player development, and a more robust “next man up” culture would’ve at least gotten him a few games by now. And maybe they’d have found some answers there and elsewhere, instead of ending Year 3 with, once again, nothing but questions.