With a four month break between matches, the MLS is Back Tournament represents a fresh start to the season for many teams.
Perhaps none more than FC Cincinnati.
The club looked to distance themselves from a difficult expansion campaign in 2019 with a number of additions over the winter, but their season was knocked off course before it even started as head coach Ron Jans resigned amid an investigation surrounding a complaint made by the MLS Players Association accusing Jans of making "extremely inappropriate comments." As a new coaching search began mere days before the season started, Cincy lost their first two games.
An air of positivity is back around the club now. With new boss Jaap Stam in charge, as well as more time for those key new signings to integrate into the squad, Cincinnati have the chance to change their fortunes this month.
“It’s almost like a restart," defender Nick Hagglund told MLSsoccer.com last week. "We lost our first two games, this is an opportunity to restart the season with a new coach, new direction and a breath of fresh air.”
What better way to start than with a highly anticipated rivalry match? Cincy take on Columbus Crew SC on Saturday (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN; TSN and TVA Sports in Canada) in the latest installment of the Hell is Real Derby, their opening match in Group E play.
"As the local boy, I stand by Cincinnati forever," Hagglund said. "I’m Cincy til I die so it’s an exciting first match for us. To open the tournament with that intensity, it’ll be good for us. When you’re in derby matches, it’s not always about pretty football. It’s about who wants it more and that’s a good way to start the tournament for us.”
Stam took charge of his first training session in mid-June, a little less than a month before his MLS coaching debut. It's not much time to start from scratch, but the team's basic tactical principles won't be too different under Stam than they were with Jans and interim boss Yoann Damet. Hagglund is proud to report that the sessions have been impressive and he's enjoyed his time working under Stam so far.
Cincinnati underwent a roster makeover this offseason, with a number of key players coming in. Jurgen Locadia headlined the transition as the big-money Dutch forward has caught most of the headlines, but he's rehabbing a thigh injury and could miss a few weeks.
As for the other reinforcements, Hagglund has been impressed by what he's seen from them all. He points to Haris Medunjanin's quality and veteran presence, Yuya Kubo's versatility and ability to strike the ball and more. He elaborated on a signing that has sort of gone under the radar: Former Dutch international Siem de Jong.
“Siem de Jong gives us something a little different in the midfield," Hagglund said. "His shiftiness, able to see the final pass and open things up. He’s a guy that’ll be a provider for us, in terms of getting guys in good positions in the final third. You need to have that extra little special wiggle, that ability to hit a pass that most people can’t even see. He adds extra flair to the team that can break open teams.”
Without Locadia, perhaps De Jong can make the difference against the Crew if he gets his debut.