CINCINNATI — FC Cincinnati built its first Major League Soccer roster around putting out a solid defense, so when the expansion club gave up four goals in the opener at Seattle, the players wanted to quickly show that wasn’t going to be the norm.
Since then, the Orange and Blue have conceded just six goals over the last six games, and even in a 2-0 loss Saturday at Los Angeles FC, the defense proved itself against top competition while holding the league leaders to one goal through 93 minutes. Carlos Vela netted the final strike in extra-time just before the final whistle.
Cincinnati looks to bounce back as a team Friday when the Orange and Blue host Real Salt Lake at Nippert Stadium.
“Defense is kind of our backbone, the bread and butter of our team,” center back Nick Hagglund said. “As a team, just defense in general, our defensive shape is kind of what makes us who we are. Other than the Seattle game, I feel like we've been pretty tight defensively and there's a grit and character about our team, especially defensively, that we're ready to fight.”
Hagglund said the 4-1 loss to Seattle on March 2 was “a mulligan.” The Orange and Blue had played a three-back system almost the entire preseason but switched to a 4-2-3-1 after a 3-0 loss to Columbus Crew SC in the preseason finale, and one week preparing with the change wasn’t enough for the players to get comfortable.
Another week of practice proved valuable when FCC played 2018 MLS Cup champion Atlanta United to a 1-1 draw, and the defense has been much sturdier since then, though the team’s two clean sheets came against New England and winless Portland, who are both last in their respective conferences.
LAFC was the biggest test to date. The second-year club leads the league with 3.0 goals per game.
“After a week of practicing a 4-2-3-1, we were more acclimated to playing that, and I think our defensive character shined throughout the next few games,” Hagglund said.
What’s even more impressive about the performance against LAFC was the fact that FC Cincinnati was playing with three changes to the lineup, including two that impacted the defense. Left back Greg Garza was out with a calf injury, so right back Mathieu Deplagne switched sides, and Justin Hoyte stepped in for his MLS debut, as Alvas Powell also was missing because of a rib injury. Additionally, defensive midfielder Caleb Stanko got his first MLS start in place of Victor Ulloa.
Captain and center back Kendall Waston said although each player brings his own unique set of skills, there hasn’t been a noticeable change in defensive productivity when changes have been made to the lineup. Part of that is because the coaches switch up pairings in practice all the time so players get used to playing with different guys.
“I think we have communication, everyone has a good understanding of what we're doing, so we're going in a good (direction),” Waston said. “Playing in L.A. was a tough game, because they go forward and they right now are the best team in MLS. We have to continue to improve, obviously, because our main priority is to make it possible to have more clean sheets, and we have conceded a few goals now. ... We know we have good players, good characteristics inside our defense, and we have to give our team that security we need.”
FCC received a lot of criticism throughout the offseason roster-building process for its emphasis on defensive players. Many started calling Cincinnati the new Minnesota United of expansion because of the seemingly low expectations and lack of big-name players. However, FCC knew if defense were the focus it would always at least be in games and have a chance to collect points, especially through a tough opening portion of the schedule that included nine of the first 10 games against 2018 playoff teams.
The Orange and Blue have done surprisingly well despite the short runway to MLS following their acceptance last May. They have eight points through seven games and currently hold a playoff position as the seventh-place team in the Eastern Conference. Minnesota United, on the other hand, gave up 70 goals the first season and finished out of a playoff spot.
“I feel confident with both sides of the ball with our group,” FCC coach Alan Koch said. “I think we went to L.A. and tried to nullify a very good attacking team as much as possible, and I think for the most part we did. We didn't do it completely or we would have gotten a clean sheet. We believe we are capable of defending, ... but it's also about managing moments. When you defend, one moment can hurt you, and when you attack, one moment, if you don't capitalize, also can hurt you.”
Hagglund said the change to the 4-2-3-1 has been a factor to the team’s improved defense since Seattle, though the different lineups on the back line show there is plenty of versatility on defense.
“I think we just realized after the Columbus game we needed something maybe a little less aggressive, I guess,” Hagglund said. “We have the pieces to do both, so it's not like we can't go back to three in the back, but I think for the most part (the 4-2-3-1) was going to give us a solid defensive shape, and as an expansion team, you don't want to give up too many goals.
"You saw Minnesota come in and give up a ton of goals their first year," he continued, "and you just want to be in games as long as you can. Then, hopefully, you can score a goal and change the momentum of the game and see what happens.”