Place Your Bets: Staff Predictions for the 2019 MLS Season

We asked our staff what their expectations and predictions were for FC Cincinnati’s 2019 MLS season. Here’s what happened when they shook the Magic 8-Ball.

Believe it or not, we can now count down thedays until the beginning of FC Cincinnati’s first MLS season on one hand. Butterflies are locked and loaded in our stomachs, and the beer is chilling in the coolers.

We have guesses as to how well FCC will perform. This team has been rebuilt so quickly with known and unknown quantities that we could be pleasantly surprised or swallowing our pride. Regardless, the first season will be fun, even if we can’t see where the roller coaster goes from here.

We asked our staff what their expectations and predictions were for the 2019 MLS season. Here’s what happened when they shook the Magic 8-Ball.

From what we’ve seen from the 2019 preseason, what do you think FC Cincinnati’s apparent strengths and weaknesses are?

Michael Walker (Founder/Managing Editor): On the strengths side, FC Cincinnati showed their physicality and athleticism during preseason. Darren Mattocks scored a pure pace goal in the first match. The twin towers of Ndam and Lasso scored a nice set piece goal against the Colorado Rapids. Alvas Powell and Mattocks set up Adi’s opener against Charleston in the CCC with some attractive work down the right flank. As a new and unfamiliar team, set piece and individual effort goals will be important this season.

The biggest weakness is clearly familiarity with each other and with the tactical plan. This group has basically been together for just over a month, and at times during the preseason, that showed. It’s going to be a bumpy start to the regular season against top opposition, and this team simply needs time together before we’ll know what they can do. The good news is that it’s a low bar to get into the playoffs and MLS is letting one more team per conference into the postseason in 2019.

Geoff Tebbetts (Writer/Editor): Defensively, I feel we have a ton of options to keep the score low and competitive. Even if the offense stalls this season, getting a positive goal differential will provide a good shot at making the playoffs. The experience at the back line with Waston, Deplagne, and Hagglund feels solid, and Lasso has provided a solid preseason of work. I also feel that our set-piece work will be better than advertised. We still have a dangerous specialist in Ledesma, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen out of Bertone’s work.

However, the nagging weakness is likely going to be in discipline. Last year, Coach Koch managed to guide the team through many yellow-card accumulation suspensions. The only red card was a questionable second yellow to Blake Smith (and FCC still won that game). Already this preseason we’ve seen two straight reds. I worry Koch won’t be able to calm the team down at this level when they get aggressive.

Stephen Buckeridge (Writer/Editor): For weaknesses, I’ll start with easier one to address.

  • The biggest gap appears to be missing a bona fide difference maker and chance creator in the center of the midfield, a true #10 that will dictate possession and creativity. Is a possible summer DP signing in the works?
  • Short preseason and time-period to establish chemistry and optimal formation.
  • Strength of schedule over the first 9 matches; FCC has a brutal start for an expansion side.
  • A proven first-division keeper, though I have confidence in Jack Stern developing Spencer Richey into a reliable option.

Strengths? Two main ones.

  • Home field advantage and atmosphere.
  • Underdog status.

Connor Paquette (Contributor/Graphics): Chemistry. By now FC Cincinnati fans should be well versed in this team-building exercise. In year 2 we replaced our head coach weeks before the season. In year 3 we rebuilt basically from scratch, and in year 4 we’re doing it all again. No matter the level of talent, each player needs time to develop a relationship with their team—learning their mannerisms, understanding their attitude, and matching their pace. That can take months, sometimes years before things truly click. With that, I encourage you to endure the first four months and save judgment until the midseason mark.

Jeff Bull (Writer): Based on the preseason games I watched, it’s all weaknesses so far. FC Cincinnati’s formula worked against Charleston, but Columbus Crew SC put Cincy’s alleged strength—its defense—through a mile-long paddle-wheel. The chatter I heard said they didn’t look much better for the first 70 minutes against the Chicago Fire. I believe the defense will improve, but it’s going to have to have a damned high ceiling in light of the decision to short change the attacking side of the team. The attack has been…unattractive and largely ineffectual, a wail-it-forward-and-chase affair. I wouldn’t be against giving players from last year’s USL team a greater role in the attack; call it a bet on collective chemistry and muscle memory over raw talent.

Where do you see FC Cincy finishing in the Eastern Conference table? Do they make the playoffs in their first year?

Michael: FCC will finish 9th and outside of the playoff spots. They’ll find some good form and work their way up the standings later in the season after a start that produces precious few points. If they sign a DP CAM in the summer, they might have enough to sneak into that 7th and final playoff spot. Don’t worry about FCC fans bailing if they don’t make the postseason. Some fair-weather fans may be turned off, but Cincinnati sports fans have a thick skin. The excitement of playing in the first division and the prospect of what’s to come will outweigh any first season blues.

Geoff: It’s hard to envision a Top 7 finish. I ask for the team to stay healthy and gain experience this season to build confidence. Considering only 11 players on this roster played MLS minutes last year, we can’t expect magic right away. They could finish ahead of Orlando and New England, but unless teams like Toronto and Chicago stumble, I don’t see them going further. 10th place for me.

Stephen: I don’t see FC Cincinnati making the playoffs their inaugural season. FCC will finish with 34 points, one point per match played, likely placing them in the 9th to 11th place range overall.

The top 8 teams that will compete for the 7 Eastern Conference playoff spots appear to be Atlanta, Red Bulls, NYCFC, D.C. United, the Union, Crew SC, Chicago Fire, and Montreal. FCC, TFC, Orlando City, and New England will compete for the bottom 4 spots.

Connor: I imagine we finish between the middle and bottom of the Eastern Conference Table. Our talent and team budget are below average. We’ve signed only one true DP (Cruz was more a financial move than a talent one), and I’m not sold on Koch’s ability to out-coach at this level. I think the playoffs are a reasonable goal, and we’ll definitely put up a fight thanks to the MLS hype, but prepare for a good beating headed our way.

Jeff: Barring some changes, FCC finishes low. Even the teams that struggled last year—your Torontos, Chicagos, San Joses, and even Orlandos—have a baseline talent as solid as any team Cincinnati faced last season, and they have individual players capable of doing damage to boot. Moreover, I have yet to see a clear outline of how Cincinnati will function on the field. The Portland Timbers played a similar “defend-and-counter” scheme last season, but they had two players (Valeri and Blanco) capable of both connecting and driving a functioning attack. Cincinnati has a defense, a handful of solid forwards, and nothing much in between.

Which teams will meet in the MLS Cup, and who will win it all?

Michael: New York Red Bulls are due and have been for a while. They did some nice work in the offseason inking Aaron Long and Tim Parker to long term deals. Sure, Tyler Adams is gone but they have a great pipeline of talent into their system. They will be the best team in the East, but will lose out in the playoffs to D.C. United, who take advantage of the unpredictable single-elimination playoffs. Seattle Sounders will return to the final capture the Cup, beating D.C. in the final.

That’s right, I didn’t mention Atlanta. They’ll be great, but I think it will take De Boer at least a year to sort it out and claim trophies again for the Georgia outfit.

Geoff: I’m going to cheat a little and predict that the two “MLS 2” teams from the 2016 USL Cup get to the 2019 MLS Cup. There’s only one team in the East that is stocked with talent and angry from last year’s result—New York Red Bulls. Despite dealing Adams to Leipzig, their academy is too deep to worry about losing a step. I also think that Sporting Kansas City stole some talented backup pieces in Rodney Wallace and Kelyn Rowe in the offseason to buffer their depth even more. This time around, I see New York Red Bulls finally breaking their cupless drought over SKC, as much as the New Englander in me HATES to admit.

Stephen: Sporting KC appear to be clear frontrunners in the West. Peter Vermes is the longest-tenured manager in the league and has done a quality job of creating a winning culture at the club. If their recent 3-0 CONCACAF Champions League drubbing over Liga MX side Toluca is any indication, they are primed to repeat top of the Western Conference table and make a 2019 MLS Cup run.

The East is more interesting than many are predicting by stamping Atlanta United in as MLS Cup 2019 favorites. There could be a longer transitional period in the Peachtree State to adapt to new manager Frank de Boer’s style of play, training methods, and player control off the pitch. Because of this, I’m going with the New York Red Bulls in the East.

Sporting KC wins the 2019 MLS Cup 2-1 over RBNY.

Connor: It will be Atlanta United vs. LAFC, with Atlanta repeating. Why wouldn’t they? They have a new coach, but the core of their team is perfectly intact. Their best player got replaced by an even better player. And they’ve got the depth to challenge at every level and competition. There’s really no other team at their level, attendance-wise, money-wise, and talent-wise. It’s Atlanta, and then everybody else.

Jeff: I’m gonna play the stats and say Sporting Kansas City and New York Red Bulls, but I know that’s wrong, and you should too. Wild cards abound, and the likeliest suspects (and the first one pains me) are Seattle Sounders FC and (again) Atlanta United FC. Unless Frank de Boer deranges that system (something I’m pricing in for some damn reason), they have kept the team that won it and should have a good shot of doing it again.

Who on FC Cincy’s roster do you predict to be the team’s MVP?

Michael: If there’s going to be a team MVP this season, I think it will be on the defensive side of the roster. Kendall Waston has the size and experience to do the job. Just a couple of short years ago at Vancouver, he was the only true defender on any MLS roster that was a DP. He’s going to have to shine and lead the team during the inaugural season if FCC’s going to have any shot at the playoffs.

Geoff: There are no obvious MLS-level all-stars on this squad, and Adi needs talent around him to be considered the team MVP. If he can’t be fed enough, I see the likes of Darren Mattocks leading the team in scoring. Considering that he was our first supplemental pick, that would be an immense steal. As for the other positions, I see a ton of leadership potential, but not a lot of stand-out names. I would love to be proven wrong.

Stephen: Two names come to mind, although neither are currently targeted to start—Allan Cruz and Spencer Richey.

Cruz could establish himself as the workhorse and conduit in the midfield that FCC needs to stay competitive this season. The 22-year-old Tico is a dynamic box-to-box player who can eat up minutes, tackle cleanly, and link the back line to the attack. If Richey ends up being the team’s MVP, it will be a result of an onslaught of attempts on goal and some stellar work between the posts to keep the Orange & Blue in games this year.

Connor: Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to our new Kenney Walker—Caleb Stanko.

Based on what I’ve seen from Stanko in preseason, I truly believe he’ll fill a territorial, possessive, and transitional role. I’ve seen Koch use him as a defensive midfield leader, like Wil Trapp in Columbus, and also move him back to fill the CB role when FCC needs a fifth defender. He’s not going to be a sexy player like Ledesma, but he will be a solid and consistent field general.

Jeff: Whoever it is that connects the defense to the forwards. That could be Leonardo Bertone, Victor Ulloa, or maybe even USL holdovers Emmanuel Ledesma or Nazmi Albadawi (who at least have track records with the team). All I know is that someone has to do it, or this team is screwed.

Do you have any strong agreement or dissent with our opinions? What do you expect from our Orange & Blue? Who do you see making it to the MLS Cup?

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for FCC’s maiden MLS voyage and the season opener against Seattle this weekend.

Three Things Kekuta Manneh Brings to FC Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati signed Kekuta Manneh on a free transfer from FC St. Gallen 1869. “Scooter” brings pace, connections, and American ambitions to FCC.


Age: 24
Position: Left Winger
From: Madiba Kunda, Gambia (U.S. citizen)
Former team: FC St. Gallen (SUI)
Value: $900K
Deal: Free transfer from St. Gallen and a trade with Columbus Crew for his MLS rights, including $250K in TAM and $50K in GAM. FCC could pay an additional $100K in allocation money based on Manneh’s performance.
Transfermarkt Profile

FC Cincinnati signed left winger Kekuta Manneh on a free transfer from Swiss Super League outfit FC St. Gallen 1869. The Gambian is 24 years old but comes with a wealth of first division experience, including 124 MLS appearances (74 starts) for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Columbus Crew. He scored 26 goals and delivered 14 assists between 2013 and 2017 while in the American first division. His standout MLS season came in 2015 when he made 32 appearances for the Whitecaps, scoring 7 goals and creating 5 assists. He also can boast eight MLS Cup playoff appearances, mostly as a substitute during his time with the Crew.

Manneh left MLS in 2017 after a season with the Crew and hasn’t found a great deal of playing time since his departure. He landed at powerhouse Pachuca of Liga MX during the 2018 Clausura, but only featured in 1 league match and 5 cup games. In the fall of last year he moved to Switzerland, but only featured in six of 20 Super League matches for FC St. Gallen 1869 during the 18/19 season. Kekuta Manneh arrives in Cincinnati looking to reignite his career in MLS where he has found success in seasons past.

Three Things Kekuta Manneh Brings to FC Cincinnati

FCC Connections

As a former Whitecap, Manneh has established connections with Alan Koch, Kendall Waston, Darren Mattocks, and especially FCC assistant coach and fellow Gambian Pa-Modou Kah. Manneh and Kah played together in Vancouver during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The video below kicks-off with a goal created by both players and highlights their relationship. It also features cameos by Kendall Waston and Darren Mattocks.

“Scooter” Has Pace and Finishing Ability

Former Whitecap teammate Darren Mattocks gave him the nickname “Scooter” in Vancouver because “he’s always buzzing around the pitch.” Apparently, Manneh wasn’t a fan of the nickname at first but has embraced it since. The moniker will likely be reinstated now that he’s joined the Orange & Blue.

Kakuta Manneh is a burner. He has pace. He can beat opposition players on the dribble, and can finish what he started. In the video above, Pa-Modou Kah comments. “He’s faster with the ball than without the ball . . . He’ll be one of the best Gambian players to have played this game.”

FC Cincinnati is not currently well-stocked with pacey players. Manneh certainly checks that box. He’s also a welcome addition to bolster FC Cincinnati’s attack. With Lamah and now Manneh on the left, that side of the Orange & Blue’s offense looks a lot more potent.

American Ambitions

Although Manneh is Gambian, and lived there until the age of 16, he is also a product of the American soccer development system. He moved to Texas upon his arrival in 2010 and played with U.S. Development Academy clubs as well as the famous PDL side Austin Aztecs. Manneh has aspirations to play for the USMNT and established residence in Washington during his time in Vancouver to pursue citizenship.

Kakuta Manneh realized his goal and became an American in the fall of 2016. Shortly thereafter, he was called up to the USMNT January camp under Bruce Arena. He hasn’t been capped yet but he’s another player on Alan Koch’s roster that could be in the mix for a national team call-up if he performs well for FC Cincinnati.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s preseason.

Three Things Allan Cruz Brings to FC Cincinnati

Allan Cruz, a promising young midfielder, joins from CR Herediano in Costa Rica. Here are the qualities that Cruz will bring to FC Cincinnati’s 2019 squad.

Photo Credit: License JuanJosé

Allan Cruz
Age: 22
Position: Midfielder
From: Nicoya, Costa Rica (international spot)
Former Team: CS Herediano
Market Value: $455K
Transfermarkt Profile

Allan Cruz, a promising young midfield talent, joins FC Cincinnati from CR Herediano in Costa Rica. At the tender age of 22, Cruz boasts 100 appearances since making his professional debut in 2015. During those appearances, he’s scored 10 goals and contributed 6 assists, with the bulk of his action coming during the 17/18 season.

His recent success earned him an invitation to the international stage last year. He now has six appearances with the senior Costa Rican national team, all friendlies in 2018. He tallied a goal with his head in a friendly against Peru last November.

Cruz also participated in both the CONCACAF Champions League and CONCACAF League with his former team. CR Herediano won the latter in 2018. Here’s a highlight of one of Cruz’s finer moments in CONCACAF League play.

Three Things Alan Cruz Brings to FC Cincinnati

Versatile Midfield Play

Recent reports labeled Cruz as the “N’Golo Kanté Tico.” While French midfielder Kanté is best-known for his defensive talents, Cruz most often played at Herediano in central midfield alongside a more defensive player. The linked article cites Cruz’s teammate and mentor, Tico veteran Randall Azofeifa, arguing that Cruz is really a “typical European #10” and praises his ability to “attack spaces.” Perhaps Cruz can evolve into that attacking midfield role for FC Cincinnati. Alan Koch likes to have a full stable of midfielders suited to playing various roles, and Koch referenced Cruz’s versatility in a Tweet welcoming him to Cincinnati.

Another Tico in the Team’s Spine

Allan Cruz joins veteran center back and Costa Rican international Kendall Waston in Cincinnati, who looks certain to be a mainstay on the team’s back line. The MLS veteran has 30 caps for the Ticos and should be a great mentor for Cruz as he begins his journey in America’s first division. The image below shows Waston (back row, third from right) and Cruz (first row, far right) together with the Costa Rican national team.

Photo Credit: La Nacion

Sellable Asset

FC Cincinnati’s 2019 roster build has focused on veteran talent. While Cruz has quite a few pro appearances under his belt, he’s the youngest of FC Cincinnati’s international transfers. His value as an asset should increase as he reaches the prime of his career. If he continues on the current trajectory, Cruz is no doubt a player that could attract interest from high-paying European outfits. This piece of business stands out as one that’s most likely to yield some future profits for FC Cincinnati.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s offseason and MLS roster build.

Photo Credit: License JuanJosé