Deeper Cuts: Damet Rings the Changes, Shot Conversion, and Player Confidence

Following a tumultuous few weeks in club history, FC Cincinnati returned to Nippert Saturday with a new coach and mindset. Winless in 7 matches …

Image by Ryan Meyer

Following a tumultuous few weeks in club history, FC Cincinnati returned to Nippert Saturday with a new coach and mindset. Winless in 7 matches, and having gone 655 minutes scoreless from the field of play, FCC abruptly made a coaching change Tuesday. The club decided to place their foreseeable trust in the youngest MLS coach ever, previous assistant coach Yoann Damet. That decision was rewarded by the players with a flowing, decisive 2-1 victory over an in-form Montreal Impact. Many adjectives come to mind regarding the team’s performance … refreshing, encouraging, hopeful, enjoyable!  

With less than 100 hours since being named coach, how did Damet and his team turn the tide?

Tactical Changes

Damet made several tactical changes to the formation and line-up from what we’ve witnessed this season. The most significant and impactful change was to the midfield. Instead of rolling out a pair of Central Defensive Midfielders, “Yo” as the team refers to him, changed from a double pivot to a single pivot midfield formation.

He entrusted Victor Ulloa with a field general role that fostered connectivity between the back line and attacking players which FCC has been lacking all season. In Italy, they refer to this deep-lying midfield general as the “regista” – the director. Ulloa looked comfortable and ready to take on the regista role for the Orange & Blue. Ulloa had 93 touches in the match, 43 more than any other midfielder from either team. Here is Ulloa’s dynamic and effective distribution map for the game.

Victor Ulloa Distribution Map (via mlssoccer.com)

This use of the single pivot formation enabled the Orange & Blue to control possession and create fluidity from the back line through the midfield to the attacking third. Both of FCC goals were the result of double-digit pass sequences. The first goal was arguably one of the most patient, methodical team goals in FC Cincinnati history. Each field player gets a touch on the ball and contributes to the one-minute full field build-up resulting in Allan Cruz’s second goal of the season.

Shot Conversion

Over the first eleven matches, FC Cincinnati had a woeful shot conversion rate. Shot conversion rate is calculated as goals scored divided by shots attempted. Prior to Saturday’s contest, FCC had scored 8 goals over 112 total shots attempted, a rate of only 7.1%.

As noted by OptaJack before the game, no other MLS expansion team since 2015 had a season rate under 11.0%. Saturday’s two-goal haul over only six total shots translates to an efficient 33.3% rate for the game. By far the most productive goals per shot ratio of the season, thereby increasing their season average to 8.5%. Note, however, that FC Cincinnati only had 6 total shots.

Confidence in His Players

Possibly as important as the tactical changes unveiled on Saturday was the confidence the manager showed in his squad. Damet was both humble and effusive towards his players in his post match remarks. “The most important pieces are the players. We want to provide an environment that allowed them to express themselves, and the players showed tonight that they are capable of playing football.” He continued, “They deserve fully the credit for the performance of this afternoon.”

One result does not guarantee a continued positive trajectory, but the improved atmosphere and energy surrounding the team is evident.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of our fantastic supporters who are Moms!

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press as FCC travels to Orlando next Sunday to take on former Louisville skipper James O’Connor and his Orlando City SC squad.

The Marks FC Cincinnati Must Hit to Reach the Postseason

With 20% of the season in the books, a look at the watermark FC Cincinnati must hit to make the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs.

Image: Ryan Meyer

FC Cincinnati is already 20% through their inaugural MLS campaign. While they’ve spent the majority of the first six weeks in a playoff spot, they likely have to improve their average point totals to earn a place in the postseason.

FCC’s 34-game season breaks up nicely into five segments of roughly seven matches each. Now that they have completed the first seven-game stretch, it’s time to take an early look at the MLS Eastern Conference playoff picture. Playoff talk already? Why not?

MLS announced changes to the MLS Cup playoff format last December. In previous years, only six teams from each conference advanced to the postseason. In 2019, seven teams from each conference will make a playoff run in a single-elimination format. Additionally, each conference’s table leader will receive a first-round bye.

Historical Trends

Historical trends establish the waterline that FCC needs to reach to make the playoffs. This analysis takes the past four MLS Eastern Conference seasons (2015-2018) into consideration, representing the current MLS expansion era.

MLS Eastern Conference Historical Averages (2015-2018)

The seventh-place finisher in the East (highlighted in blue above) has averaged 1.30 points per game (PPG). This translates to at least 44 points over a 34-match season. Of note, the teams that compete for the final playoff spot are also earning roughly 31-33 points at home (1.80 to 1.95 PPG). A good rule of thumb is that FCC will need to earn at least two-thirds of the season’s points at home. The Orange & Blue will require a home record at Nippert of 8-3-6 (30 points) or similar. The rest they need to cover away from Cincinnati.

MLS Eastern Conference Table

MLS Eastern Conference Standings

FCC currently sits in seventh place after seven games in the Eastern Conference. If the season ended today, they would make the 2019 playoffs and potentially play the Columbus Crew in a “Hell is Real” first-round match. Can you imagine? However, their 1.14 PPG places them on a current path to fall at least 6 total points short of the targeted waterline.

Although the early part of the season has had its share of encouraging moments, including two wins in their first four matches, let’s pump the brakes on the expectations. The early schedule has been challenging overall, but FCC’s two wins came against the last place teams in each conference, Portland and New England. To be fair though, two of their losses came against two of the best teams in MLS. Losing 1,900+ miles away to Seattle and LAFC is not a reason for concern, especially given the fight they showed last week at the Banc.

Foreseeable Challenges

FCC currently falls short on two key metrics, points per game (PPG) and Home PPG. Furthermore, keep in mind that:

  • The club’s primary Designated Player and target striker is currently suspended. Until the MLS concludes its SABH review, no one knows Fanendo Adi’s future with the team.
  • Over the next 7-match segment, four games are away from Cincinnati, including three-straight outside of the comfy confines of Nippert. Looking out to the end of June, FCC will play 7 of 11 games away from home.
  • The depth of the club will be tested with the potential of 13 matches over a 71-day window. This includes two hopeful 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup games in June. That amounts to a game every 5.5 days.
  • Two Eastern Conference giants, currently beneath FCC in the table, are starting to stir — the 2018 Supporters’ Shield holders, New York Red Bulls, and the 2018 MLS Cup champions, Atlanta United.

The purpose of this article is not to dash your FCC playoff hopes, but to provide a realistic view of the marks FCC must hit to reach the postseason. Up to this point, the grit of the players and coaching staff has been admirable. They are a tough team to play against. However, from a macro perspective, after 1/5th of the season, they are trending just outside of the playoffs and close to where we predicted they would finish.

Look for more playoff updates as the season unfolds and stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of the 2019 season.

FC Cincinnati’s First-Month Rollercoaster

As FC Cincinnati concludes their first month of play, let’s take a moment to recognize their accomplishments and “firsts”.

Five games down, twenty-nine to go. As the inaugural month of MLS play concludes for the Orange & Blue, let’s recap what FC Cincinnati has accomplished in the Eastern Conference. A lot has happened in a short amount of time, leaving room for statements like, “If you had told me [insert interesting fact] a few weeks ago, I’d say you’re crazy!” and “Is it too soon to start thinking playoffs?” So, let’s try to make sense of the most exciting month in Cincinnati soccer history to date.

Notable “Firsts”

Look at these notable ‘firsts’:

  • First MLS goal, courtesy of a Leonardo Bertone wonder-strike
  • First MLS point, at Atlanta, the reigning MLS Cup champs no less
  • First-ever MLS win against the Portland Timbers in the home opener

Let’s take a look at that first goal one more time.

Bipolar Narrative

Simply put, this doesn’t tell the whole story. The FC Cincinnati narrative, in the media and public perception, has been bipolar. 

Here’s a team that got soundly defeated by a (we know now) still-undefeated Seattle side, and even the most optimistic fans were worried. Were the pundits correct? Is the roster not constructed well? Are we Minnesota 2.0?

Surprise, surprise, then came 7 points in the next 3 games, momentarily lifting FCC to second place in the table. They did it by grinding out results and effectively using counter-attacks when opportunities allowed. They did it by controlling the tempo at Nippert. And they did it due to Koch’s tactical flexibility against different types of opposition. He utilized multiple 4-back formation variations and entrusted 19 different with playing time in these three matches.

The narrative flipped. A few weeks prior, the Orange and Blue looked defensively unorganized and offensively inept. Now? The defense is stable, the team selection stronger, and the offense balanced with seven different goalscorers. There even appears to be some depth, allowing FCC to survive international breaks.

March of All Marches

The march to the stadium before the Portland game forced even the most skeptical voices to take note of, and appreciate, the incredible soccer culture in the Queen City. Perhaps even more impressive were the supporters who stuck out miserable conditions to watch Philadelphia bring Cincinnati back down to Earth.

Has Koch’s side cemented its place in the Eastern Conference as a threat, or only capitalized off the poor form of recent dominant sides like Atlanta and Portland? Only time will reveal FC Cincinnati’s true level. For now, they rest in 5th place in the Eastern Conference.

Alan Koch summarized it best in his comments in training about the start of the season

“We knew we were going to have some tough moments, and we’ve had them already, and we’re going to continue to have tough moments. Saturday night was one of those moments. But we’ve also had some very positive moments too . . . It’s been a rollercoaster of a start and it’s going to continue to be a rollercoaster as we go through the next few months.”

Awards

Here are the unofficial first month awards as voted on by yours truly.

MVP – Spencer Richey

Richey is the only USL holdover to get significant playing time in the first month of action, primarily due to Tyton’s hamstring tendonitis which has kept the Polish keeper out since the Seattle match. Determined not to be a placeholder, Richey has made the most of his opportunity. He has kept two clean sheets in four starts, and earned MLS Team of the Week honors for his performance against the Timbers in Week 3. Although far from flawless, Richey has been a strong shot-stopper in the net. In my opinion, he picks up this month’s MVP award as he has played more consistently than any of FCC’s field players.

Most Improved – Alvas Powell

After getting slated following a poor inaugural match outing, Koch showed faith in the pacey, attack-minded fullback by giving him two more starts. He may not always prove to be first choice in a system without natural wing backs, but Powell rebounded and has improved considerably.

Most Disappointing – Fanendo Adi

An expansion side is normally reliant on its Designated Players. Adi has a very specific playing-style that some may construe as lazy, slow, and one-dimensional if he’s not producing goals. Once he went down injured during the home opener, Adi has not been part of the 18-man game day squad. Now his future with FCC is in peril due to his own reckless behavior, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens from here.

Most Promising – Greg Garza

The quality is evident any time Garza starts or is subbed on, and when healthy, he instantly makes FC Cincinnati a more threatening team. If he can stay fit, expect some big performances from the MLS veteran.

Do you agree with these awards? What do you make of the season so far?

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for all of your 2019 FC Cincinnati coverage.

Deeper Cuts: FCC Doused by a Union Monsoon

FC Cincinnati’s attempt to extend its three match unbeaten streak yesterday evening at Nippert Stadium was doused by the Union Monsoon.

Image by Joe Craven

Saturday evening’s match doused the fans and FC Cincinnati’s three-match unbeaten streak. Before we take a peek under the hood and see what sputtered in last night’s 2-0 loss, let’s give due where it’s deserved. Shout out to the announced crowd of 25,867 for braving the cold, windy and monsoon-like elements. Having played and attended hundreds of games since 1972, last night had some of the worst conditions I’ve ever experienced. Well done, Orange & Blue fans!

On Their Heels

The stats and final score certainly matched what we witnessed on the soggy Nippert pitch, a complete performance by the Union. From the beginning whistle, Philadelphia dominated possession (56 to 44%), total passes (532 to 408), shots (16 to 5) and, of course, the score line (2 to 0).

The Union’s high pressing, creative 4-4-2 diamond midfield placed FCC back on their heels all night. The “bend-but-not-break” FCC defense finally capitulated early in the second half after going 312 minutes without conceding a goal. Considering they were under a deluge of shots (and rain), it’s not surprising the damn broke in the 47th minute. Here is Philadelphia’s shot chart last night.

Union shot chart

They peppered Spencer Richey and the back line with 16 total shots from all directions. Although only three were on target, two found the back of the onion sack.

Now in comparison, let’s view FC Cincinnati’s heat map illustrating where their possession occurred on the field.

FC Cincinnati heat map vs. Philadelphia Union, via WhoScored.com

Note the lack of yellow and green color to the right side of the field. The Orange and Blue didn’t come anywhere near the Union’s 18-yard box. The team spent the majority of the evening to the left of the screen scrambling to cover the attacking runs by Phily’s front six forwards and midfielders.

Fabian the Game-Changer

A major contributor to the Union’s success last night was Mexican central attacking midfielder Marco Fabian. Philadelphia completed a transfer in February for the two-time “El Tri” World Cup veteran with German Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt.

Although just 5′ 7″ in height, his stature was quite large and influence great throughout the match. Not including defenders, Fabian had the most touches on the ball of any player – 75. In comparison, Allan Cruz and Roland Lamah only combined for 68 touches total. Below is a map of his night’s work.

Marco Fabian’s touches vs. FC Cincinnati

In addition to his game-winning tally, he consistently drew the attention of two to three FCC players at a time. This resulted in the ability for the outside midfielders, Brenden Aaronsen and Ale Bedoya, to successfully combine with the Union forwards, Fabrice-Jean Picault and David Accam, and effectively and frequently penetrate FCC’s defensive seams and back line.

One-off or Trend?

What can we take from last night? Was the weather a factor? The line-up? Do we simply throw out the performance and reset for Sporting KC next Sunday? Before we do that, let’s look at last night’s game in perspective to the first four games this season. The following table summarizes multiple statistical areas from Saturday’s match in comparison to FCC’s average from the first four matches.

FCC statistical comparison between Union match and 2019 season average

Consider that FC Cincinnati has now played 15% of their inaugural 2019 MLS season. This should be enough games to consider trends of play. What stands out?

  • FCC is willing to concede the majority of possession, which leads to less touches and passes overall.
  • The Orange & Blue play a counter-attacking style looking to maximize their opportunities and shot selection in transition.
  • A by-product of this playing style results in additional pressure on the back line that forces them to make a formidable amount of clearances each match.
  • On average before last night, FCC out-performed its expected goals for and goals against numbers (+2.4 and +1.7 respectively). Last night, the law of averages caught up to them.

Yesterday evening’s performance did not vary from the team’s style of play, or in reality most of their season’s average statistical figures. However, it might be a warning light of sorts of what to expect when they face in-form high pressing opponents with talented and creative attacking front lines [see Seattle and Philadelphia results]. Don’t panic, but Sporting Kansas City placed a 7-spot on the Montreal Impact yesterday and are coming to town next Sunday. In summary, the margin of error in the MLS is razor thin between earning a result and suffering a loss.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for all your 2019 FC Cincinnati coverage.

Deeper Cuts: Point Taken in the Peachtree State

A deeper look at FC Cincinnati 1-1 draw against Atlanta United, including player availability, a compact defense, and a foundation for future success.

Photo Credit: FC Cincinnati

Although we turned our clocks forward an hour yesterday, let’s go back in time. Think about it. Several months ago, weeks ago, or even on Sunday morning, if you had offered the FCC players, technical staff and fans the opportunity to earn a point at Mercedes Benz Stadium, all of us would have taken it in a heartbeat.

The key word is “earned”. FC Cincinnati ventured into the Peachtree State in front of 70,000+ Red and Black feverish fans and witnessed the unfurling of Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS Cup Banner. After the 4-1 drubbing in Seattle a week earlier, no one was giving the Orange & Blue a chance in this game, including me.

Lo and behold, a plucky FC Cincinnati put together a memorable performance yesterday. After allowing an early goal to all-time MLS single-season scoring leader, Josef Martinez, FCC settled into the game. They were able to take the one-goal deficit into halftime and use the remaining time to their advantage.

As the pressure built to a kettle-like boiling point, Alan Koch released his second-half substitutes. Each one made an impact and enabled the Orange & Blue to secure a deserved 86th-minute equalizer. Kenny Saief calmly collected a loose ball, dribbled around his mark and played a scintillating through-pass to the surging Roland Lamah. Lamah sped past everyone inside ‘the Benz’ and slotted a left-footed screamer past Guzan. Here is the historic equalizer.

Atlanta, the Peachtree State, and all of MLS were stunned. The newcomers to the league are the first team since Toronto FC to earn a point in Atlanta which was on August 4, 2018.

Let’s look at several factors that contributed to the vast improvement for FCC to taking their first MLS point.

Player Availability and Selected 18-man Roster

One of the key differences between the first two matches, and subsequently their results, was the player availability and selection of the 18-man roster. The two obvious additions to yesterday’s game-day roster were USMNT capped players Saief and Greg Garza. FCC’s newest player, and 4-month loanee Saief, made an immediate impact on the match. In 17 minutes as a substitute, Saief accomplished the following in his MLS debut:

  • Sublime through ball setting up Roland Lamah’s 86th-minute strike
  • Nine successful passes in contrast to only two unsuccessful passes – six inside Atlanta’s half and three within the final attacking third
  • Two timely recoveries in FCC’s defensive half
  • A calming and attack-minded presence

Additionally, Koch’s two midfield changes – Costa Rican Allen Cruz and MLS veteran Kekuta Manneh – were significant net adds to the starting XI. Both players brought a tireless work rate, especially defensively, and quicker pace of play to the line-up.

Compact Defensive Effort

Even though FCC’s 4-2-3-1 shape was the same as the opening match, the tactics (and personnel as mentioned above) were vastly different.

Tactically versus Seattle, FC Cincinnati played a dangerous and sometimes careless high defensive line. They also allowed a ton of flexibility for its outside fullbacks to freely venture up the flanks. This lead to an unbalanced team and individual defensive lapses resulting in an onslaught of Seattle attacking pressure. The graphic below illustrates how much Seattle peppered FC Cincinnati’s box with scoring chances. Total shots (24), shots on target (9), and 15 shots inside the 18-yard box, including all four tallies. Game, set, match.

Shots Allowed – Seattle Sounders

In contrast, in Atlanta, the defensive shape was more compact. The outside fullbacks, Alvas Powell in particular, remained more stable and connected to the center backs. Combined with the midfield changes, FCC was able to absorb pressure despite conceding a lot of possession. Lamah, Manneh, and Cruz used their pace and experience to apply more pressure on the ball outside the defensive third. This acted as the first shield of defense in front of the central defensive midfielders and backline.

Not surprisingly, Koch stated post-match that a big part of the game plan was to not give Josef Martinez and others any space. As a result, scoring chances and shots against improved mightily, against one of the most prolific scoring sides in the league. Total shots (10), shots on target (4), and only 5 shots inside the 18-yard box.

Shots Allowed – Atlanta United

Foundation Building

What a difference a week makes. These personnel and tactical changes enabled FCC to nick a valuable away point in Atlanta. Regardless of whether the Five Stripes were suffering from an early fixture load or a shaky start under new manager Frank de Boer, taking a point from the defending champions is a superb result for FC Cincinnati. The result is a foundation of success that they can build upon.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press as we prepare you for the 2019 home-opener at Nippert on Sunday.