Welcome to Major League Soccer, FC Cincinnati. Here’s a firm kick in the teeth to get you started.
There’s something ironic, or maybe just plain savage, about how MLS teams tend to treat their newest expansion counterparts: Congratulate them warmly, eagerly do trade business with them, then – more often than not – beat them like a drum in their inaugural seasons.
The Seattle Sounders handed Cincy a harsh lesson on Saturday night, thumping them 4-1 in their MLS debut and underlining just how much work remains for Alan Koch and his FCC squad. And while the wealth, ambition and innovation of Atlanta United and LAFC has shifted the paradigm a bit, Cincinnati’s introduction is more typical of the expansion experience.
MLS expansion teams are 4W-10L-2D all-time in their inaugural games, a history that includes several scoreless performances and a couple of humiliating blowouts. It’s always a mad scramble to prepare for year 1, and even those few who find a formula for success rarely have it concocted in time for opening day.
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So Cincy fans should not be surprised to see their team lose this one, especially to such a strong Sounders side. The bigger questions: Just who are these Orange-and-Blue lions? What’s the identity, what’s the plan, and how do they go about implementing it?
On the evidence of their first 90-plus MLS minutes, I don’t really have any clearer a sense of that than I did a week or two ago.
As both the stats and the eye test showed, FCC were utterly unable to maintain possession or build rhythm – which is OK if you’ve decided to be a counterattacking team comfortable playing against the ball. And some of Koch’s roster-building gave us that impression: They stockpiled defenders and defensive midfielders and picked up a few speedy, clever attackers.
Then on Saturday, heading into halftime down 3-1, Koch told FOX’s Jillian Sakovits he wanted his team to keep more possession and push into Seattle’s half. So… I don’t know.
Cincinnati also changed their formation for this one, trotting out a 4-2-3-1 shape after spending much of the preseason using a three-man back line, often arrayed in a 3-4-3 setup. For some reason holding midfielder Eric Alexander was deployed wide on the right, right back/center back Mathieu Deplagne played left back. And things got messier as the Sounders landed flurries of body blows: target striker Fanendo Adi dropped way deep to try to get involved, wingers drifted inside and any clear signs of shape, spacing or patterns of play were hard to spot.
Alan Koch wanting to get more possession is... curious and kind of perplexing. Obviously they want to create some chances to try and level this game. But I feel like that's more likely to come as a result of quick counters than possession.— Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow) March 3, 2019
But look, this is the deal. Cincy and their legions of excited fans must take the good, learn from the bad and try to keep smiling, even as they look ahead to a daunting trip to the defending MLS Cup champs in Atlanta next week and a visit from last year’s other cup finalist, the Portland Timbers, after that.
Leonardo Bertone struck an absolute peach of a goal for FCC’s first in their MLS era. A big flock of traveling fans made the long trip from Ohio to Puget Sound. Everyone associated with the club will walk away from this weekend with no illusions about the magnitude of the task at hand.
If they are looking for sources of hope or inspiration, Cincy need only look over at the guy who tormented them most on the CenturyLink Field turf, Jordan Morris.
The Sounders attacker was lavishly hyped when he entered MLS on the back of one of the biggest Homegrown contracts in league history, only to suffer some legit tribulations in the form of injury woes and some humbling exposures of the holes in his game. J-Mo was dedicated, humble and blindingly fast, but prone to inconsistency and obviously one-footed, showing extreme reluctance to do anything with his left foot besides run on it. And all that was before he suffered a severe knee injury in Concacaf Champions League action a year ago.
The player who scored two of Seattle’s goals on Saturday – the second and prettier of the brace a sweet first-time strike with his left foot – and took Man of the Match honors looked markedly different from the Morris of old, a year older, wiser, sharper and more complete without losing his existing strengths.
I don’t know what the older, wiser and sharper version of FC Cincinnati will look like, but I’m interested to watch them blaze a trail to it.