Kenny Saief could very well make his first MLS start when FC Cincinnati take on the New England Revolution on Sunday (4 pm ET — TV & streaming info), but head coach Alan Koch is still figuring out exactly how the on-loan attacker fits into the expansion club’s system.
In their last two games, a 1-1 draw at Atlanta on March 10 and a 3-0 home win against Portland last Sunday, Cincinnati defended in a 4-4-2, mostly eschewed possession and looked to hit on the counter. Center midfielders Victor Ulloa and Leonardo Bertone sat deep, stuck close to the back four and clogged the middle. Wingers Roland Lamah and Allan Cruz picked their spots to race into the attack – when they did get forward, they attempted fast-paced breakouts with lightning quick forward Kekuta Manneh and strikers Fanendo Adi and Darren Mattocks, both of whom will miss Sunday's match due to injury and international duty, respectively.
The setup was effective. FCC didn’t see much of the ball against Atlanta, but they didn’t allow the Five Stripes many dangerous looks. It was killer against Portland, as Ulloa and Bertone controlled the middle and the attack took advantage of the Timbers in transition.
It’d make sense for Koch to continue with the system on Sunday in Foxborough. It’d also make sense for him to give a start to Saief, who the club acquired on loan from Belgian club Anderlecht earlier this month. The Israeli-bred American international assisted Lamah’s equalizer in a 17-minute appearance off the bench in Atlanta and is more skilled, more creative and better in possession than just about all his Cincinnati teammates. There are questions, however, about how he’d fit into their current setup.
“We’re looking at giving him the opportunity this week, but we’ve got to figure out exactly where he fits with the way we’ve been playing,” Koch told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “Obviously, when he came off the bench against Atlanta, he did a fantastic job, he went out and did exactly what we asked him to do. So now we’ve got to figure out the best place to put him within the way we’re playing as a group.”
Saief said he feels comfortable playing on either wing or in the middle underneath a striker. He’s not the same type of player as Lamah, Cruz or Manneh, however. Saief thrives in possession. He’s at his best when his team controls the ball and he can combine and pick out a pass. That’s not how Cincinnati have played this season. According to Opta data, the club have completed just 365 passes in the opposition half this season, fewest in the league among the 22 teams that have played three games.
If Koch starts Saief ahead of Manneh, Lamah or Cruz, who will also miss Sunday's match while on international duty, Cincinnati will gain ability in possession, but lose some speed. Will that affect their ability to hit teams in transition? Koch doesn’t necessarily think so.
“It’s funny, with Kenny he’s very, very quick with the ball,” said Koch. “He definitely doesn’t have Kekuta or Darren’s speed without the ball, but very few players do. Now, we can still continue to play the way we are and hopefully be good in transition, but we see Kenny as a player who needs and wants the ball at his feet. It’s just about the players now understanding exactly how he plays. You can change players within a system without changing the system.”
Regardless of how Saief fits in Cincinnati, it’s possible that he won’t be with the club for very long. His loan from Anderlecht only runs until the end of June. Saief and Koch both confirmed that Cincinnati have an option to permanently acquire the 25-year-old when his loan expires, though Saief noted that its short length was one of the reasons he got over some initial apprehension and agreed to the move.
A possible extension isn’t the immediate concern for either party, however. For now, Saief is focused on getting into the XI and Koch and his staff are working to figure out where he fits best.
“It’s all about maximizing our players abilities, putting them on the pitch in the best areas of influence,” said Koch. “That’s obviously important for Kenny, but it’s important for everybody else in the team, too.”