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Questions for Coach: Positions of need for FC Cincinnati – Part 1

In the first of a series, Brad Gough looks at whether FC Cincinnati needs a defensive central midfielder in the upcoming transfer window.

As the transfer window opens on Wednesday, we enter the “silly season” of MLS rumors abound as to who FC Cincinnati is targeting in the transfer window. Will it bring in a hybrid left-back that can play center back like Tyler Blackett? Or maybe a high priced No. 10 that can fill in at center forward in a pinch like Mario Gotze? I’ll leave the random speculation to others. However, I do have some thoughts as to what positions FCC is in need of strengthening. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be writing articles about each position that I’d target, and why.

Defensive Central Midfield

FC Cincinnati needs a defensive central midfielder that is well above the league average. Much has been made of the squad’s crowded midfield and how coach Jaap Stam can put the pieces together to get the most out of his crew. In Haris Medunjanin, he has a world-class passer that doesn’t defend much. Frankie Amaya is a young, up and coming prospect who is rapidly improving and very solid overall but hasn’t shown an outstanding ability on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. Allan Cruz is an international talent in the center of the pitch but has been deployed mostly as a wing or an attacker. 

Then there’s Caleb Stanko. A seemingly forgotten man under Ron Jans, Stanko’s introduction into the starting lineup coincided with FCC’s switch to the 5-3-2 and its run of giving up only one goal over three matches. He’s known as a hard-nosed defender who doesn’t add much in possession. In fact, I’ve touted on my Talking Tactics podcast this very fact. However, I think Stanko is closer to Amaya in that regard than to an above-average defensive central midfielder.

In the Portland match, Stanko completed 90% of his passes. After seeing the stat, I assumed most of them were backward or sideways, so I went back and watched the match specifically focusing on the American midfielder. I was shocked to see so many plays like the sequence pictured below. Here, Stanko gets his head upfield and sees the Portland defender closing in on him before receiving the ball. He turns, and seeing the window that Yuya Kubo is checking into is too tight, he pivots, pushes the ball into space and hits a beautiful curling ball with his left foot to Andrew Gutman on the opposite touchline.

Indeed, the more I watched Stanko, the more I was impressed with the way his head was always on a swivel in possession, and he seemed to always get the ball out of his feet quickly and pick out the correct pass. His ability to find pockets of space from which to support play was excellent as well. Below, as Tom Pettersson finds a checking Adrien Regattin, Stanko sits perfectly between the Portland midfielders and continues to scan the field for the next pass. As Regattin lays the ball off to him and the Portland players quickly close, he is already prepared to find the next pass. He plays a one-touch pass to Kubo in a dangerous space on the field.

So is Stanko the guy, or does Stam need to invest in a midfielder this transfer window? I’d say the problem with Stanko is that he is not nearly as good defensively as his reputation would claim. During the MLS tournament, he only won 36.8% of his defensive duels. Defensive stalwarts like Diego Chara of Portland or Artur of Columbus were well over 50% in this category. He also has far fewer recoveries than those players and makes fewer tackles. 

The image below shows a series where Stanko’s defending is badly exposed. He is matched up 1v1 on the flank with good cover down the line and to the inside. However, as the Atlanta United attacker accelerates past him he turns his hips to chase, allowing the dribbler to cut back inside, away from his cover and into open space.

This team needs a defensive midfielder who can actually defend if Stam ever hopes to get back to playing an expansive 4-3-3. I’m not sure who would be available this window, but I would make the position a priority.

Stay tuned for Questions for Coach: Positions of need for FCC – Parts 2 through 4.

@fccincytactalk (Brad Gough) for @CincySoccerTalk

Brad Gough is the former head coach of the Cincinnati Lady Saints and Cincinnati Christian University, and a former Director of Coaching for Northern Kentucky Soccer Academy.

Tune into the latest Talking Tactics with Coach Gough Podcast as Brad breaks down FC Cincinnati’s loss to Portland with special guest Joe Lowery from the MLS Assist podcast! Look for our new podcast on your favorite podcast network each week!

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