FC Cincinnati’s sophomore MLS season did not go according to script. The club went through an abrupt, unplanned coaching change and then had its season disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And when play resumed in market without fans, an anemic attack kept it in last place, resulting in its second wooden spoon.
There’s reason for some optimism however, as FC Cincinnati opens its 2021 campaign with players reporting today. Coach Jaap Stam begins his first full season at the helm, and he’s armed with incoming Brazilian striker Brenner, the top roster addition. The club is also on the brink of opening its new West End Stadium in May.
Labor negotiations pushed the preseason back a week, and before players can train together, they must quarantine for seven days and go through medical exams and COVID-19 testing. Group training can begin on March 8. Players had the option of reporting and quarantining early, and several had their physicals on Saturday.
Though the pandemic shortened the season in 2020, a full 34-match slate is expected this year. The regular season begins April 17 and culminates in Decision Day on Nov. 7. The MLS Cup will be on Dec. 11. Expansion side Austin FC begins play in the Western Conference, and Nashville SC will compete again in the Eastern Conference.
MLS has not released a schedule yet, but look for FC Cincinnati to play its first few matches on the road while the club prepares for the West End opener in May. When play does begin at West End, it won’t be in front of a packed house as the club envisioned when starting construction. With the COVID-19 pandemic still active, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has suggested 30% capacity at sporting events. Though there will be at least some fans in attendance — something that hasn’t happened since Sept. 29, 2019, at Nippert Stadium, a stretch of 20 months come May. There are no guidelines yet for the distribution of limited-capacity tickets.
On the pitch, FC Cincinnati finished 2020 at the bottom of the table for the second straight season with 16 points and a 4-15-4 record. Its 0.52 goals-per-game record set a new MLS low mark. General manager Gerard Nijkamp addressed the lack of goals in the offseason by acquiring Brenner. Other newcomers include goalkeeper Cody Cropper, midfielder/forward Calvin Harris, right back Ronald Matarrita and midfielder Ben Mines
FC Cincinnati has 23 players on roster but can add players in the primary transfer window, opening March 10 and closing June 1. Here’s the roster by position as it currently stands:
Goalkeepers (3): Cropper, Beckham Sunderland, Przemyslaw Tyton*
Defenders (6): Saad Abdul-Salaam, Zico Bailey, Nick Hagglund, Matarrita, Tom Pettersson*, Maikel van der Werff*
Midfielders (10): Frankie Amaya, Alvaro Barreal*, Allan Cruz^, Joseph-Claude Gyau, Harris*, Yuya Kubo*^, Haris Medunjanin*, Mines, Kamohelo Mokotjo*, Caleb Stanko
Forwards (8): Barreal*, Brenner*^, Gyau, Harris, Franko Kovacevic*, Kubo*^, Jurgen Locadia*^, Brandon Vazquez
(*) denotes international player; (^) denotes designated player
NOTES: Barreal, Gyau, Harris and Kubo are listed as both midfielders and forwards. The roster shows four DPs, but the club does not have to be roster compliant until the season begins.
While we wait for training to begin, here are three preseason questions to consider:
■ Will there be an Amaya effect? The top pick in the 2019 SuperDraft did himself no favors by making public that he requested FC Cincinnati move him. There are reports that the club turned down offers to trade him in exchange for as much as $1 million in allocation money. What effect, if any, will this have in the locker room? Will Amaya, a mainstay in Stam’s lineup in 2020, now see his minutes reduced, perhaps in favor of Cruz?
■ Can Locadia be the scorer fans hoped for? Despite rumors that FC Cincinnati might move Locadia, according to the Enquirer’s Pat Brennan, Locadia is in Cincinnati and will begin preseason with the club. He was the primary striker when healthy for most of the season, but he scored just one goal, in the 2020 season-opener. Stam moved him to the wing toward the end of last season. With the addition of Brenner, expect to see him back on the wing again this season.
■ Can Kubo improve? The Japanese international led FC Cincinnati in goals last year with three, but he had spells lacking productivity. It can be hard for new MLS players to adjust to the league and their city, and the pandemic interruption surely didn’t help. Kubo showed his talent with his wonder strike in Atlanta early last year. Now that he has a year under his belt, how much will his stock rise in 2021?