CINCINNATI — Major League Soccer officially announced FC Cincinnati as its 24th team for 2019 just nine months ago, providing the shortest runway for any expansion club joining the league.
This week, the Orange and Blue will find out how well prepared they are despite the time crunch.
FC Cincinnati begins its inaugural MLS campaign with the opener Saturday on the road against the Seattle Sounders. Here is a look at the top nine things to know heading into the season:
1. Preseason ups and downs
Cincinnati spent most of the preseason on the road, including trips to Bradenton, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, for three games each with a friendly at Indy Eleven in between.
The Orange and Blue left Florida unbeaten at 1-0-2 and looking pretty solid, but they head into the regular season with a bit of a sour taste after a disappointing 3-0 loss against Columbus Crew SC on Saturday in their Carolina Challenge Cup finale. FCC went 2-2-3 overall in its first MLS preseason and struggled more on defense than expected, given that was the focus of the roster-building process.
2. Projected starters
The starting lineup against the Crew was the closest to what fans can expect to see Saturday at Seattle, although the poor showing could cause some shakeup. Cincinnati seemed to be leaning toward a 3-5-2 early on — that was the scheme that worked so well in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup — but then switched to a 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 in Charleston. The use of wingbacks seems most appropriate for the makeup of the roster, so don’t be surprised if Alan Koch turns back to what he started with in terms of the formation.
Goalkeeper Przemslaw Tytoń didn’t finish on the best note, especially after expected backup Spencer Richey turned out an impressive performance Wednesday in a 1-1 draw with Chicago Fire SC. However, unless FCC deems Tytoń not to be ready yet (he hasn’t started a game in more than a year), it’s unlikely the club benches the international goalkeeper.
Other projected starters could include: Center backs Nick Hagglund, Kendall Waston and Mathieu Deplagne, wingbacks Justin Hoyte and Alvas Powell, midfielders Victor Ulloa, Leonardo Bertone and Caleb Stanko or Allan Cruz and forwards Fanendo Adi and Roland Lamah. Lamah could also play more of a wingback role to replace Hoyte, which would open a spot for Darren Mattocks or Emmanuel Ledesma at forward.
3. Injuries to watch
Defender Greg Garza was hoping to be on the pitch as early as in Bradenton but still works off to the side in training sessions and hasn’t yet appeared in a game. The former Atlanta United player strained his quadriceps during U.S. men’s national team training in January. When he returns, he likely will start at left back.
Waston returned to play for the preseason finale Saturday after missing four games because of an undisclosed injury, but was subbed out in the 58th minute. If he’s not match-fit, Stanko or Forrest Lasso could replace him at center back. Waston wore the captain’s armband against the Crew.
4. Style of play
FCC focused on defense during the roster-building process, and Koch gave the impression early on he was looking to pack the box and strike on counters. However, getting the ball out of the back seemed to be a problem at times this preseason, and the concerns of having too many defensive midfielders proved valid when disconnects occurred between the back line and strikers.
The Orange and Blue will be most successful playing direct and utilizing the wingbacks to spread the field, and Adi, the team’s No. 9, is best when the midfielders play close and feed him balls that he can one- or two-touch to goal.
5. Roster compliance
Cincinnati’s roster must be set by Friday to be compliant with MLS standards. The club’s final preseason roster had 29 players (three draft picks are on loan), and the league allows for 30 maximum with the final two spots needing to be filled by homegrown players.
However, it’s not as easy as just putting together a list of names. FCC will have to break it down into a senior roster (spots 1-20), supplemental roster (21-24) and reserves (25-30) with age and salary requirements attached to each category.
6. MLS debut for Koch
Koch will be making his official coaching debut at the MLS level after serving as a scout and “two-team” coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps prior to joining FCC in 2017.
He led Cincinnati to the United Soccer League regular-season title last year and a U.S. Open Cup semifinal run in 2017, and he guided Whitecaps 2 to the USL Cup final in 2016, but the question is: Can his lower-level success translate to the top division? Fans will have to “trust the process,” as he likes to say, and perhaps show a little patience before determining that.
7. Tough start
MLS didn’t cut FC Cincinnati any breaks while introducing the expansion side to the league this season.
The Orange and Blue open at the league’s two attendance leaders, and both are quality opponents. Seattle, which plays at the NFL’s CenturyLink Field, finished second in the Western Conference last year and was the MLS Cup runner-up in 2017 and champion in 2016. Match 2 opponent Atlanta United was the MLS Cup champion in just its second season last year. United destroyed attendance records while regularly filling the NFL’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Both games will be broadcast nationally, the first on Fox Sports 1 and the second on ESPN.
8. Dates to remember
The opener is one of many dates to circle on the calendar, but the biggest must-see matches include the March 17 home opener against Portland, July 18 versus D.C. United (for the heavy interest in Wayne Rooney), Aug. 10 at Columbus Crew (for the first official “Hell is Real” match as an MLS club), Aug. 25 versus Columbus Crew, Sept. 18 against defending MLS Cup champ Atlanta United and Sept. 21 versus Chicago Fire (as a regional rival and first meaningful matchup between the clubs at Nippert Stadium since the 2017 U.S. Open Cup when FCC won in penalty kicks).
9. What are expectations?
Although FCC obviously wants to win games, Koch has been trying to temper fans’ expectations, knowing how difficult it is to build a roster on a budget that doesn’t compare to some of the top teams in the league.
By focusing on the defense, Cincinnati tried to ensure it could at least be competitive and give itself a chance just about every match.
If that defense can meet expectations, the club may be able to go after another strong attacker or two during the summer when players become more readily available overseas, and that could go a long way in making a playoff trip if that is still within grasp at that point.