Rise and shine: FC Cincinnati hopes to show progress against Atlanta United

FC Cincinnati coach Jaap Stam said the club needs to be realistic as it prepares for the second matchday of the MLS is Back Tournament against Atlanta United on Thursday.

Photo Credit: FC Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati is preaching patience. With a mostly new roster, a new coach and coming off a 4-0 thrashing Saturday at the hands of rivals Columbus Crew in the opening match of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida, the Orange and Blue are pumping the brakes a bit.

FCC seemed like a confident group going into the tournament, and there’s no reason to believe they’re lacking in confidence going into Thursday’s game against Atlanta United. But Saturday’s result requires a reset of expectations, as minimal as they might already have been.

“We’re excited for the game,” said FCC defender Andrew Gutman via videoconference on Tuesday of the second meeting this season against the 2018 MLS Cup winners. “We think we have a good chance to get three points. We’re still in preseason mode, with Jaap coming in a few weeks ago. We’re still learning his style. Things don’t change overnight.”

Clearly. FCC’s backline was sliced and diced by the Crew, who could have found the net more than four times. It was reminiscent of the 2019 season when FCC established a new MLS record for goals allowed. While to casual observers it might seem like nothing has changed since then, Stam insists he’s seeing progress.

That said, the former Manchester United defender knows as well as anyone that success is measured by results. Until FCC gets results, or at minimum passes the proverbial eye test, it will become more and more difficult to find believers in this team.

“The fans want results. We want results as well,” Stam said via videoconference. “But we need to be realistic. It’s not like, OK, I come over here and in a couple weeks everything’s turned around and we’re going to start winning games. That’s not how it works. We’re building toward something, to play in a certain way.”

Getting a result on Thursday morning is another tall order for Stam’s club. But Atlanta is without former MLS Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez with an ACL tear and will not have 52,000-plus fans backing them like in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In fact, neither club will have a single fan backing them in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

But Atlanta still has Pity Martinez and plenty of threats. FCC lost 2-1 at Atlanta in March, right before the season was shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There were some positives to take away from that match, which was impacted by the presence of Jurgen Locadia, who may or may not be available on Thursday.

“This game’s going to be a lot different,” said Gutman. “The first game we played in front of (69,301) of their fans. It gives them a lot more adrenaline and a willingness to go forward. Now they don’t have that. I think we’re going to be able to express ourselves a little more.”

Stam is familiar with Atlanta head coach Frank de Boer, who was his teammate with the Dutch National team from 1996 to 2004. They know each other well. This will be the fourth meeting between the clubs since FCC joined MLS. FCC has managed a point from the previous three meetings but was reasonably competitive in each.

“It’s not a guarantee that knowing them well is going to help us get a result,” said Stam.

Saturday’s match didn’t kick off until nearly 11:30 p.m. due to a weather delay, and the players didn’t get back to their hotel until the wee hours of the morning. It took a few days for FCC to recover and get back into the flow of training for Thursday’s match, which is scheduled to kick at 9 a.m. barring unforeseen circumstances. To prepare, FCC has been training at 7:30 a.m. when the heat and humidity is just beginning to take hold.

Stam wants to see a tougher mindset on Thursday. On Saturday, FCC showed some quality in the first 15 minutes with Siem de Jong orchestrating the attack. But once the Crew scored on a belter of a free kick from Lucas Zelarayan, it was game, set, match.

“After we conceded that first goal, the heads were going down,” Stam said. “The confidence was down and we started making bad choices, and we didn’t stick to what we needed to do. In soccer, and in every sport, things can change very quickly. We had opportunities to score against Columbus. If you take those opportunities, the feeling is totally different. We need to build on that.”

Gutman believes they will. He seemed a tad irritated when comparisons were made to last season on Tuesday’s Zoom call with reporters.

“We don’t go into it thinking the match is going to get away from us,” he said. “As the season goes on and we get more time under (Stam), our style, our system will become more concrete and we’ll become a better team. Every training session we’re getting better. We’re understanding what he expects from us, our movements offensively and defensively. The gaps are going to close.”

FCC entered the MLS is Back Tournament hoping to prove a point, that it’s a new year with a franchise prepared to turn the corner. On Thursday, an increasingly frustrated fan base will be looking for even the slightest signs of progress in the early morning sun in Orlando.

“Teams aren’t perfect right away,” reasoned Gutman. “unless it’s Barcelona.”

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