By Eliot McKinley (@etmckinley)
To Minnesota, or to Atlanta, that is now the question for an MLS expansion team. The 2017 MLS expansion teams took divergent paths to roster building. Atlanta supplemented their young expensive South American signings with older proven MLS veterans. Minnesota relied on a corps of players brought up from their NASL squad and a more journeyman group of MLS players, sprinkled with some lower profile international imports and no Designated Players. FC Cincinnati has answered the question with an emphatic “Minnesota.”
2018 Year in Review
FC Cincinnati finished 2018 with the highest point total in USL history, but were unable to bring home the championship, losing to New York Red Bulls II in the second round of the playoffs. I asked USL expert Tim Sullivan from For Club and Country (I highly recommend following him for the best Nashville SC coverage) for his perspective on FCC’s season:
For about half of the year they were all-offense, however Coach Alan Koch’s tactics didn’t seem to fit his team. Koch didn’t have the individual talent in defensive midfield to play a 4-4-2 diamond, but clearly preferred doing it. This exposed them on the flanks and gave them limited options if the fullbacks stayed home. About halfway through the season they changed and became a borderline elite defense that was dependent on individual brilliance to make their offense happen. This is generally a good strategy in the USL, at least in the East (the West tends to be more open), and particularly so when you have Emmanuel Ledesma, who was very deserving of the USL MVP Award.
You can see in the graph above that over the summer FCC’s defense gave up less than 1.0 xGA on a five game rolling average. They were dominant for most of the back half of the season before falling off at the end of the year prior to their playoff run.
The Roster Build
FCC burst onto the MLS transfer scene at the end of July splashing $850k allocation on Portland’s Fanendo Adi as their first MLS player (along with $135k to San Jose for Fatai Alashe shortly after). This trade was significant, and it set the precedent of Cincy sending truckloads of Garber bucks to other MLS teams and also concluded FCC’s offensive signings.
After settling on Adi as the offense, FC Cincinnati’s decision makers decided that they would not repeat what they saw as the cause of Minnesota United’s rough debut: a porous defense. There is merit to this strategy, as the 63.2 xG that Minnesota gave up in 2017 is the worst in the ASA era and FCC Technical Director Luke Sassano explicitly stated this in The Athletic:
We had a set strategy to build from the back, and that’s especially important when you’re not being able to spend top, top dollar on the attack. Also looking at the trends, the teams that missed the playoffs [were] the 11 teams had the 11 worst defenses in the league [note: this is 100% not true]. So we knew a big piece of being quickly successful, or what we hope would be, is to have a strong defense.
FCC then proceed to play Xzibit’s character in MLS’ production of Pimp My Expansion Team and signed a team full of defenders and defensive midfielders. On the day of the expansion draft, Cincy spent a combined $1.2 million of allocation on Greg Garza and Kendall Waston. Each are potentially amongst the best in their positions in the league, but come with question marks, especially Garza’s ability to remain healthy. Cincy continued building from the back trading for right back Alvas Powell ($250k GAM), defensive midfielder Victor Ulloa ($150k GAM), as well as a host of international defensive minded players. FCC signed defensive midfielder Leonardo Bertone using TAM from Young Boys in Switzerland, right back Mathieu Deplagne from Ligue 2’s Troyes, out of contract Polish keeper Przemysław Tytoń, American holding midfielder Caleb Stanko again using TAM, and Costa Rican midfielder Allan Cruz as an unpublicized young DP (probably for roster rules reasons). Finally, FCC swapped $200k GAM, $100k TAM, and the top spot in the allocation order (valued at a minimum $200k) with Toronto for Nick Hagglund. While Hagglund is a perfectly fine MLS central defender and a Cincinnati native the price was met with extreme incredulity around the league.
These defensive signings were rounded out by bringing nine players up from USL, their four expansion draft picks, signing all five SuperDraft picks, and trading $300k allocation to #HellIsReal rivals Columbus for the right to sign winger Kekuta Manneh. All this maneuvering has apparently exhausted most of their GAM and TAM for 2019 according to Paul Tenorio’s calculations, which I have confirmed based upon publicly available data. Additionally, while FCC has focused their signings on defense, their player salaries are not so unbalanced. Using reported salaries by the player’s association and educated guesses for those without reported salaries, you can see that Cincy’s four forwards combined make about the same than their 13 midfielders, and more than their 14 defenders and goalkeepers. Adi himself is about one quarter of their total salary budget. Many have questioned this roster construction, however some FCC fans have seen unrecognized genius. We’ll know in a few days how it works on the field.
FC Cincinnati appear to have chosen to use a three man back line, after some initial experimentation in pre-season. One potential limitation of this strategy is that FCC only has four natural center backs on the roster, Waston, Hagglund, Hassan Ndam and Forrest Lasso, with the latter two untested in MLS. Mathieu Deplagne, a right back, and Stanko, a defensive midfielder, have also featured at center back this pre-season. It appears that FCC is not planning on playing out of the back, which is fortunate as the two MLS veteran center backs on the roster are not great in possession. Since 2015, while playing for Vancouver didn’t help, Kendall Waston is 14th percentile amongst MLS center backs in Per100 (additional passes completed over expected per 100 passes), while Nick Hagglund is 31st percentile. Perhaps playing Stanko and Deplagne at the center of the back three, which they have done in pre-season can provide some composure.
The preferred starting wingbacks are Alvas Powell on the right and Greg Garza on the left. Deplagne could also start on the right if he is not being used in central defense. They will be backed up by USL promotees Justin Hoyte (fun fact: he made one appearance for the 2003-04 Invincible Arsenal team) and Blake Smith. Much like at center back, depth may be an issue. Powell and Garza are established MLS players, but the rest are untested in MLS which could become an issue if either Powell or Garza miss extended periods due to injury.
Przemysław Tytoń is the presumed starter at goalkeeper, however, following FCC’s loss to Columbus in the final game of the Carolina Challenge Cup, Alan Koch refused to name a starting goalkeeper. This leaves the door open for Spencer Richey to potentially regain his starting spot that he held down at the end of last season for FCC in USL.
Since no one really knows what formation Cincy is going to play, it remains unclear how FCC is going to set up the midfield. Friend of ASA Bobby Warshaw diagnosed a 3-4-3, à la Paris St. Germain, however, it could also be more of a traditional 5-3-2. Unlike defense, FCC’s defensive midfield corps is not lacking in numbers. Ulloa, Stanko, Alashe, Alexander, Bertone, and Eric Alexander can all play there. For more attacking minded midfielders, Ledesma, Corben Bone, and Cruz (I don’t really know what type of player Cruz is, he is described as both a playmaker and the “Tico Kante”) are all available for Koch. There are really no wide midfielders to speak of, with FCC’s wide players are more characterized as defenders or attackers.
Cincy’s attacking focal point is Designated Player Fanendo Adi. Adi brings proven goalscoring talent to FCC, however he struggled a bit with Portland before he was traded. Adi is not the type of player that can create goals on his own, but requires good service to be most effective. As our own Kevin Minkus pointed out, it is unclear if anyone on FCC’s roster will be able to put Adi into the right positions to succeed.
Other attackers on the team include Darren Mattocks, coming off a career year at DC United, who is blessed with pace, but is not known for creating chances for others. Winger Lamah scored 19 goals on 14.1 xG over the last two seasons in Dallas, but was still largely disappointing for a player that once broke into the Belgian national team. Kekuta Manneh also provides speed, but has yet to fulfill promise he initially showed at Vancouver. After leaving Columbus, Manneh got almost no playing time during his year abroad in Mexico and Switzerland and will take time to get back to match fitness. Emery Welshman was also signed from FCC’s USL team, but will most likely rarely see the field.
On paper, FC Cincinnati appears to have a potentially solid defense, but has huge question marks in the attack. With such a defensive mindset, you are not likely to see Cincy lose their first two MLS games by a combined 11-2 like Minnesota United did. The roster seems to be built to not lose games rather than to win, in other words, to not get embarrassed. This is a risky strategy. A stout defense can keep you in games, but if you give up a goal and don’t have the attacking firepower to go out and score one yourself things can get hairy.
If the defense is able to solidify quickly and the offense is respectable, then the Knifey Lions may be within spitting distance of a playoff berth, as Harrison Crow predicted. More likely, I think, are things going sideways. FCC were thoroughly dominated, and looked almost lost, by a high pressing and possession focused Columbus Crew in their final pre-season match. The Crew were up 2-0 within 20 minutes before Lamah was sent off at half an hour. Possession was almost non-existent for Cincy and their counter attacking was limited by poor connections between the lines. If this becomes the norm, then you are likely to see something more akin to Harrison Hamm’s Baerantee. Regardless of what happens, welcome to MLS, FC Cincinnati.