CINCINNATI — Faced with questions about a roster that seemed heavy on defensive players at the start of the preseason, FC Cincinnati technical director Luke Sassano maintained the club wasn’t done building the attack yet.
The Major League Soccer expansion team ended up bringing in forward Kekuta Manneh from Swiss Super League’s FC St. Gallen a month into the preseason on Feb. 13 and added midfielder Kenny Saief on loan from Anderlecht after a 4-1 loss to Seattle in the season opener March 2.
The two late additions have settled in quickly to fill what might have been the missing pieces to the attack. Both have been key contributors the last three games as FCC collected seven points to move into second in the Eastern Conference.
The Orange and Blue are 2-0-1 since that shaky start in Seattle, including outscoring opponents 5-0 over the last two games for the club’s first wins, and they look to continue the momentum Saturday at home against Philadelphia.
“It all comes down to the quality of the players,” Manneh said. “It was easy for him and me to come in and be able to integrate and get adjusted as quickly as we can. We're still trying to figure ourselves out and know each other's qualities and strengths and weaknesses, but I think we're doing pretty well so far. I can't wait to see once we figure everything out how we're going to be. I'm really looking forward to that.”
Manneh, who spent the first five years of his professional career with Vancouver Whitecaps (2013-17) and Columbus Crew SC (2017), has played in all four games with FCC, but came off the bench at Seattle before moving into the starting lineup. He’s remained there since a productive showing in a 1-1 draw at Atlanta United in Week 2.
Saief made his debut at Atlanta and immediately showed an impact, setting up Roland Lameh’s late equalizer, but he was an unused sub in the 3-0 home opener win against Portland before getting his first start Sunday at New England. He and Manneh each had a goal and an assist in the 2-0 win over the Revolution.
FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch has not been at all surprised by the two newcomers’ quick transition to the club.
“Kenny and Kekuta are very good technical players and both very good creative players, and I think players like that in any environment a lot of times can come into the environment, because they are so comfortable with the ball that in possession they can get themselves very quickly acclimated to the group,” Koch said. “I think the challenge for players like that is more how do you defend? I think that's something that every team does in different ways and that takes a little bit of time to acclimate yourself to exactly how you're asked to play.
“If you're speaking specifically about Kekuta and Kenny, I think they've both done a good job, but they will both be the first to put their hands up and say they need to be better at exactly what we ask them to do, but that goes for our entire group. We're so new and we're continuing to grow and there is always something we can focus on to get better.”
Saief, a 25-year-old who has featured for the U.S. men’s national team, said he felt welcomed by the other players and that made it easier for him to get integrated into the group quickly.
He wasn’t discouraged by the team’s 4-1 loss right before he signed, and he felt even better seeing how motivated the group was to turn things around.
“I knew it was a completely new group, a lot of new guys, and it needs time to connect to each other, to start to understand each other,” he said. “It's hard-working guys and they all want success and want to work hard, very professional guys, so that's why the results are going very well.”
Manneh was fortunate to already know a lot of the other players when he joined the team ahead of a trip to Charleston, S.C., for the final three games of the preseason. He had 120 MLS games under his belt when he left the league in 2018 to join Mexican side Pachuca, but in his short time there he got just one appearance and had played just seven games with St. Gallen since signing there in June.
FCC gave him a clean slate, and he’s thankful for the opportunity.
“I'm really pleased with the start I've had, and with all that, thankful to my teammates and the coaching staff for the trust they had in me to contribute right away,” Manneh said. “It could have easily swung the other way, but they believed in me and I feel like my teammates believe in me as well.”
Saief said that trust is something FCC seems to have instilled in all of its players, and they are out to prove people wrong about them as individuals and as a club. The club was picked last of 24 teams in most major preseason rankings and now has a chance to become the best-starting expansion side in MLS history with a win over Philadelphia Union on Saturday.
“We are very motivated to show everyone Cincinnati is a good team,” Saief said. “They put this also in the head of guys who come here, they believe in me and this is the right place to be, so I guess it's not only me. The other guys have the same feeling and everyone is believing with their own mentality we can achieve something.”