CINCINNATI — FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch might actually have a decision to make this weekend regarding his starting goalkeeper.
Przemysław Tytoń, who has been nursing a hamstring injury since starting the opener at Seattle, has been nearing a return and is finally at the end of the “return to play” process. If he is fully cleared, as Koch expected at the end of training Wednesday, Tytoń could take his spot back from Spencer Richey for Saturday’s game at Western Conference leader Los Angeles FC.
Both goalies have strong cases.
“Competition is real at that position,” Koch said. “Competition is real at a lot of positions on this team. You want good healthy competition at every position. Obviously, the goalkeeper position is so unique because you can only play one of them. In other positions, sometimes you can move people around and try to get two players on, but you're only going to play one goalkeeper. “
Richey’s trial as the starter was solid enough that Tytoń’s return from injury doesn’t automatically mean he slides right back in. FCC earned four points against the MLS Cup finalists with Richey in the net.
After giving up an early goal to 2018 Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez in Richey’s first start March 10 at Atlanta United, he didn’t give up another goal until his fourth match. That included some big saves to keep FCC in the game at Atlanta before Roland Lamah’s late equalizer produced a 1-1 draw, and then impressive shutout performances against Portland and New England the next two games.
Although he gave up two goals in a loss to the Philadelphia Union on March 30, there was little he could have done differently to avoid them. Richey’s only major mistake happened in his last outing, when he went off his line to go clear a ball and then hesitated just long enough to allow an open opportunity for Sporting Kansas City to score in a 1-1 draw at Nippert Stadium on Sunday.
“I have faith in Spencer, and I have faith in Titi too,” Koch said Wednesday in the final training session open to media before the team departed for L.A. on Thursday. “It’s good to have him back in training. We haven’t had to make decisions just yet, but it is always good as a coach to have to make decisions.”
It seemed as if last week was going to be the first time Koch would have to make a decision, as Tytoń seemed to be increasing his workload steadily at training the previous two weeks. But Koch said he was still not a consistent full participant at that time, and that is required to be cleared for a match.
Even if Tytoń had been cleared, he might not have been available. He cut his finger late last week while cooking and had to get stitches. Koch said the finger isn’t a concern this week, though.
“This will be the first game where we’re actually having conversations about it,” Koch said of naming a starter. “Titi wasn’t completely cleared last week. I anticipate if he keeps progressing how he is he will be available for selection.”
FC Cincinnati signed Tytoń in December, using a precious international spot on the roster to do so despite the fact that the 13-year veteran of the top divisions in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland had been out of contract for more than three months.
When he made his FCC debut March 2 at Seattle, a 4-1 loss, he hadn’t started a game in more than a year. Still, the club believes in his abilities and it would be difficult to sit Tytoń after such a display of faith this offseason.
Koch said FCC wasn’t just being extra cautious with Tytoń in terms of his return process. Tytoń had been playing through the hamstring issue all preseason and the club wanted to make sure he was fully healed, and then he needed time to get match-ready again.
“You just want players to be sharp,” Koch said. “You want to set him up for success. We've gone through the whole return-to-play process with him, and now here we are, thankfully, at the end of it.”
Koch said he will base the starting job on training and match performance every week on a case-by-case basis.
If Tytoń was expected to regain his job upon returning from injury, though, the timing couldn’t have worked much better for the staff. The decision would have been more difficult after back-to-back shutouts by Richey.
Richey said he is still just as confident in his abilities as a starter despite the big mistake Sunday.
“I'm not going to base my mental state or my confidence off one play,” he said Wednesday. “I am looking at the body of work over the last five games, and I think it's gone pretty well for myself and the team, so that's what I am looking at.”
Whoever gets the nod Saturday night – kickoff is set for 10:30 p.m. – will have a tall task facing the league’s top-scoring team. LAFC has 19 goals through six games and scored three goals in the first half against D.C. United, which is second in the Eastern Conference.
Richey said if he is the starter, he will be the same player he has been. Tytoń’s progression in training doesn’t make him feel like he has to be perfect, though perfection is always the goal.
“Even if you are the starting guy, you are trying to play well amongst other goalies in the league,” he said. “It's a high-pressure business and it doesn't stop week to week no matter who is training next to you.”