Safe to say that the decision to give the city of Cincinnati a professional soccer team paid off: after just three seasons and unprecedented support in the USL, MLS took notice. Now FC Cincinnati face a new challenge: replicating the success it enjoyed in the second division. And while things looked good for an early portion of its MLS debut against the Seattle Sounders last week, it ultimately couldn’t ride the wave of momentum gathered from a memorable first goal in the league.
On Sunday, FCC pay a visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to take on Atlanta United. I had a chance to catch up with Bryan Weigel from Cincinnati Soccer Talk to give us a look at the new club, some faces to know (beside former Atlanta man Greg Garza), and how things might shake out in Year 1.
What would be defined as a success for FCC in the first year of it being in the top flight? What’s your level of optimism as you take a wider view of the season?
If you would have asked me before the Carolina Challenge Cup, I would have said success is making the playoffs. After the CCC and week 1 vs. Seattle, my expectations have ratched down a bit. FC Cincinnati has plenty of skill on the roster with former US men’s national team players Kenny Saief, Caleb Stanko and Greg Garza, but this group, along with several others, have not had the time together on the pitch to form relationships needed to succeed. This makes me feel a bit more optimistic when I see how the schedule shapes out over the last half of the season. Many have seen the talent of internationals Leo Bertone and Allen Cruz abroad or on their respective national teams. There is much upside for the group should they “gel” together down the stretch. With all that, I feel that it will be a failure should FCC not make the playoffs. That is an expectation for every team. Just because we are an expansion team, does not mean we should accept not being one of the best 7 teams in the East.
What is Alan Koch’s tactical philosophy for the club? Has it changed with its move to MLS or has he set out to tweak some things?
Great question. I have always viewed Coach Alan Koch as a bit of a tweaker. Whether it is the week-to-week lineup or the formation, Koch has varied his approach. In 2017, Koch pulled a makeshift roster together into a 5-4-1 that saw FCC advance to the US Open Cup semi finals and a 6th place finish in the regular season. In 2018, the South African ran a 4-4-2 diamond that set USL scoring records and won the league regular season title. 2019 began with a 3-4-3 in preseason, but after a 1-1 draw vs. Chicago and a 3-0 drubbing against Columbus, Koch jettisoned that approach and elected to go with a 4-2-3-1 vs. Seattle. That decision has been under tremendous debate here in Cincinnati after conceding 4 goals, but the offense did have spark in a 20 minute period in the first half. I still expect much tinkering throughout the season as Koch will look to work in Kekuta Manneh, Caleb Stanko, Allen Cruz and Kenny Saief into the group.
FC Cincinnati have just signed Saief on loan from Anderlecht. Where does he fit into this lineup, and what advantages does he provide?
Cincinnati fans along with local and national media have been clamouring that FCC needs a creative playmaker to achieve any success in 2019. Chilean midfielder Matias Fernandez was in Cincinnati in early January to fill that role, but apparently FCC and Matigol could not come to terms on a contract. That left FCC with a huge hole going into their inaugural campaign. Late last week, it was rumored that technical director Luke Sassano was abroad finalizing the deal which would become Saief. The former USMNT winger has come into camp with expectation that he could fill the CAM/#10 role for this campaign. Traditionally a left winger, Saief has played centrally and could fill the role of playmaker for at least this season. Whether he stays in that role or fills another, Coach Koch has highlighted his versatility: “He’s a very skilled player who can create things out of nothing. He’s very versatile. He can play as a left back, he can play as a winger too. We can even play him inside as an attacking midfielder. When he gets acclimated, safe to say he’ll be one of our best players.” I look for him to make his debut next week vs. Portland, but it remains to be seen if he is exactly who FCC need to click in 2019.