FC Cincinnati: 5 things to know entering 2021 MLS season

Orange and Blue coming off back-to-back last-place finishes

After back-to-back last-place finishes, it will be difficult for FC Cincinnati to change the outside perception of the team.

As the Orange and Blue set to kick off their third season Saturday, they are hoping for a fast start to build momentum going into the opening of the West End Stadium next month. FCC plays its opener at 8:30 p.m. Saturday against Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium, the first MLS meeting of the former USL rivals, as part of a three-game road stretch to begin the season.

“We want to come out with a strong statement,” FC Cincinnati right back Joe Gyau said Thursday in a virtual press conference with local media. “The past couple seasons haven’t been up to par. Everybody knows that. I’m sure everybody’s aware of that. But now coming out, this is a new season. This is a chance for us to show a new side of us, a new face, and I think we’re going to do that. We’ve had a good preseason. Everybody’s fit. We just want to start now to try and change the face, change how people look at the FC Cincinnati squad. I think that’ll be a good way to start it this weekend and then pushing it towards the rest of the season.”

A fast start for FCC would go a long way in sending a message this year will be different, Gyau said, but here’s a look at where the team stands going into the season.

1. Increased spending on the roster

FC Cincinnati general manager Gerard Nijkamp, scouting director Hunter Freeman and coach Jaap Stam overhauled the roster this offseason, and the club shelled out roughly $20 million in transfer fees on its last three signings – including at least $13 million to acquire Brazilian striker Brenner Souza da Silva from Sao Paulo.

Brenner, new attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta and winger Isaac Atanga, whose work visa is still pending, are all key signings to addressing the biggest weakness last year when the Orange and Blue scored just 12 goals. They also upgraded the left back position, trading up to $600,000 in allocation money to NYCFC for Ronald Matarrita.

While investing in the roster, FCC showed how serious the club is about seeking progress on the pitch.

2. Potentially potent attack

FC Cincinnati’s attack, on paper, looks pretty solid.

Brenner, who scored 21 goals in 39 appearances last year with Sao Paulo, takes over at center forward, and Brighton loanee Jurgen Locadia moves the left wing, where he scored most of his goals during his peak at PSV Eindhoven. Alvaro Barreal fills the right wing position and should be a bigger part of the attack after getting five games last year as a summer-window signing.

Acosta should be the difference-maker, though. FCC hasn’t had a true No. 10 since joining MLS, and Acosta fills that void with MLS experience. If the former D.C. United player can play to his 2018 form, the forwards will have service that was lacking in 2020, and he’s a goal-scorer too.

“I think people will worry about these guys a little bit more,” FC Cincinnati center back and Lakota West graduate Nick Hagglund said. “I think it gives us confidence. We’ll have the ball a little bit more. They won’t be able to press us as easily as, say, in the past, but I think ultimately there’s a little bit of a fear factor that these guys can change the game at any moment.

Playing two fullbacks that have experience at winger – Gyau and Matarrita – also will make a difference in how FCC attacks.

3. Questions on defense

The defense looks to be the team’s weakness going into the season.

Gyau is playing a new position after switching from a wingback/winger role to right back, and the team wasn’t able to upgrade either of the starting center back spots this offseason – though 20-year-old loanee Gustavo Vallecilla could develop into that role. With Maikel van der Werff (sports hernia) unlikely to play Saturday, FCC has two true center backs -- Tom Pettersson returns on the left side and Hagglund will start on the right after re-signing with FCC on a new contract in December.

Hagglund didn’t see the field until late last season but made the most of his opportunity and now could prove his two MLS Team of the Week performances were no fluke. FCC will need steady performances from him and Pettersson with the fullbacks expected to get further up the pitch on offense, and defensive midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo should help out in covering for them, but counter attacks could leave them vulnerable.

4. Frankie Amaya’s departure

The team’s No. 1 overall draft pick from 2019 demanded a trade this offseason, and after the club initially resisted, he ultimately got what he wanted. FCC agreed to a trade with New York Red Bulls for almost $1 million in allocation money, though the clubs had not officially announced the move at time of publication.

Amaya’s departure leaves a big hole in the box-to-box midfield role, as he became the starter there last year and was expected to continue filling an important role in the lineup for the foreseeable future. Stam rarely used Allan Cruz there last year, after being the team MVP in 2019, and now he’s shifted winger/forward Yuya Kubo to that position as the projected starter, despite him struggling in his midfield performances last year.

The expectation is for Kubo to make a big jump in Year 2 with the club, but the midfield looked much more stable with Amaya in the picture.

5. Stam’s first full season

Stam took over last summer – the club’s third MLS coach in just over one season – and didn’t get a preseason to prepare for his first game when the league returned to play at the MLS is Back Tournament. He made a big adjustment after his first loss and won the next two games but FCC had just two more victories the rest of the year.

Now, he’s had a proper preseason and a chance to have a say in the roster build and is anxious for his first full season – a more normal one at that. The players seem confident in Stam’s plan, but it’s time to see it come together on the pitch, especially when games begin at the $250 million West End Stadium on May 16.

“I think for us in the process where we are now at this moment in building the team and making different choices, hopefully getting some other players in as well, it is quite important as well that we are going to have some results,” Stam said. “If you have results and that’s for everybody the same, it helps you also in making that next step going forward in the belief in the team and the confidence in the team and individuals as well. And it also gives us a very good feeling.”

About the Author