After signing Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe as the club's first two MLS players in July, FC Cincinnati shifted their roster-building focus to defense. In the final days of 2018, almost a month before players report for Cincy's first MLS preseason, the club have assembled a head-turning backline.
The trend of building from back to front continued Thursday, when the club acquired right back Alvas Powell from the Portland Timbers in exchange for $250,000 General Allocation Money and a share of any future transfer outside MLS. The 24-year-old started 24 MLS regular-season games for the Timbers in 2018, having played 121 games in the regular season since joining in 2013.
Powell joins Greg Garza, Kendall Waston, Mathieu Deplagne and Hassan Ndam as offseason additions to join USL holdovers Forrest Lasso, Blake Smith and Justin Hoyte. As Bobby Warshaw wrote two weeks ago, FCC have picked up the essential trait of defending for MLS success.
Garza is one of the best left backs in the league, Waston is an MLS Best XI-caliber defender on his day, Deplagne is a proven fullback in Ligue 1 and Powell hasn't reached his prime, yet has five-and-a-half years of MLS experience under his belt. Lasso and Ndam are unproven at the MLS level, but with the other four ahead of them in the pecking order, that's fine.
As ESPN's Taylor Twellman noted, Cincy's starting backline is shaping up to be Powell, Deplagne, Waston, Garza. If that's how it plays out in their MLS debut on March 2 against the Seattle Sounders, it would leave Lasso and Ndam on the bench behind Deplagne, who has played right back almost his entire career in France. Regardless, if it's Lasso or Powell as the odd man out on opening day, depth isn't a bad thing. And it's not something expansion sides are typically blessed with, which is a credit to FCC's decision-makers.
Cincy have also made smart, defense-minded acquisitions to complement that strong backline. They signed former Polish international goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton, acquired central midfielders Victor Ulloa from FC Dallas and Leonardo Bertone from BSC Young Boys.
In their first MLS seasons, expansion sides have struggled to keep the ball out of the net. New York City FC conceded 58 goals and Orlando City SC 56 when the pair entered the league in 2015. Minnesota United broke the then-record for most goals conceded in a season with 70 in 2017 and LAFC's explosive attack overcame a defense that gave up 52 goals last year, second-most for a playoff side last season. The only team to break that trend was Atlanta United, who gave up 40 in 2017, but had a much larger budget than the rest of those sides had.
On paper, it surely looks like FC Cincy will challenge Atlanta for the best defensive record among expansion teams in recent years. That's huge — And it gives them a chance to challenge for a playoff place.
As for Portland, the move comes with logic on their side, too.
Powell has long been tagged with the promise of huge potential, but he may never turn into the Best XI-caliber type of attacking fullback which was forecasted when he started 31 games as a 21-year-old en route to the Timbers' 2015 MLS Cup triumph. He's not yet Julian Gressel, Kemar Lawrence or Edgar Castillo, and he's no longer 21.
His total 2018 compensation was $241,625 and he had largely become second-choice after Jorge Villafana's re-acquisition and Zarek Valentin's breakthrough. Plus, it opens a path for rotational minutes for 20-year-old Homegrown fullback Marco Farfan.
Grabbing some GAM and alleviating an expendable, not-insignificant contract off the books isn't bad business.