FC Cincinnati’s draw on Saturday against Nashville SC continued FCC’s six-game stretch without a win and the team’s sixth draw in eight matches. Saturday’s match bears little resemblance to the 2-2 draw in Nashville to open the season in 2021. The Orange and Blue controlled the game for long stretches. Outside of Teal Bunbury’s opening goal off a set piece, Nashville struggled to create much danger as 0.97 of Nashville’s total 1.6 xG came in the first 15 minutes.
After taking the early lead, Nashville was willing to let FCC break down its solid defensive structure. However, after Brandon Vazquez’s equalizer, Nashville couldn’t seize control of the game to look for a winner. Except for another chance from a set piece, FCC’s defense largely shut down Nashville’s attack.
Despite being in the middle of a frustrating run, there are still reasons for optimism as we approach the last third of the season. First, the Orange and Blue are still playing meaningful games into the summer and that fact doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. Turning one or two of the recent draws into three points certainly would’ve left FCC in a much stronger position to chase the Eastern Conference playoffs but the team, as of this writing, occupies a playoff spot.
Second, the team weathered Lucho Acosta’s three-match absence due to suspension. Two points from three matches isn’t ideal but FCC kept its head above water without its talisman. A rested, and surely motivated, Acosta obviously makes FCC a stronger team as it chases the club’s first MLS playoff appearance.
Varied Options For Ball Progression
On Saturday, the Orange and Blue Nashville pressured FCC players just 18 times in FCC’s defensive third, per Football Reference, one of the lowest totals of the 2022 season. Nashville was content to let the Orange and Blue have the ball, both because of Nashville’s preferred style and as a result of its early opening goal. FCC finished the match with 58% of possession and its wide center backs, Ian Murphy and Nick Hagglund, made the most of their time on the ball.
Because Nashville didn’t bring much pressure, Hagglund and Murphy pushed play forward, either on the dribble or by finding more advanced teammates with passes. FCC’s third center back, Geoff Cameron for most of the game, effectively moved the ball from side to side, finding Murphy or Hagglund with simple passes, switching the point of attack.
Murphy finished the match with three progressive passes but contributed eight progressive carries and seven carries into the final third. Hagglund’s progression stat line was even more impressive: seven progressive carries and 10 progressive passes and 12 completed passes into the final third. Their efforts, plus Obi Nwobodo’s, allowed FCC to get the ball into attacking areas, and most importantly, to the Orange and Blue’s most dangerous attacking options.
To that end, Brandon Vazquez, Brenner, and Álvaro Barreal successfully received the most progressive passes on the team, with 9, 8, and 7 respectively. Though the Orange and Blue didn’t quite find the final ball to unlock Nashville’s defense, FCC’s plan to get the ball forward was promising against a well-drilled unit.
Looking Ahead To The Stretch Run
It’s hard to believe that we’re in July but still approaching the run-in to the playoffs but because of the winter World Cup, the 2022 MLS season will conclude more than a month earlier than last year’s iteration. So let’s set the stage for the remaining 12 matches which will decide whether FCC makes its MLS playoff debut.
First, FCC seems to be getting healthier at the right time. Junior Moreno’s 30-minute appearance off the bench was his first game action since the end of May. Acosta’s aforementioned return from suspension can’t be overstated, either. There’s a reason he’s an MLS All-Star and is mentioned as an MVP candidate. Acosta ranks fifth in the league in non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists with 11.2, though really he’s now fourth after the departure of Taty Castellanos to La Liga’s Girona.
Up top, Brandon Vazquez (who has a very real shot at winning MLS Golden Boot) and Brenner continue to log minutes together and build a rapport. Against Nashville, the two combined for 1.0 xG on nine shots. Even without Acosta, the two strikers got into dangerous positions against a solid defense. With Acosta, we can only hope they find the ball in even more advantageous situations.
With the overall health of the roster trending in the right direction, Pat Noonan has some lineup flexibility too. Barreal’s work rate, flexibility, and technical ability give the manager options. Whether it’s playing Barreal as a very attack-minded wingback or using him as a second-half substitute to attack tired defenses, Noonan can make tweaks to take advantage of situations as they might arise.
Though there’s hope for a defensive reinforcement (or more than one), FCC’s center backs have been holding their own of late. Ian Murphy’s continued improvement and Nick Hagglund’s quality play give FCC a baseline of solid play at the back.
FCC has been in a bit of a rut with all the draws lately but is still playing like a playoff team. This team will have to do something no FCC team has done in MLS and win meaningful games down the back stretch of the season. It wouldn’t be the first time this collection of players has surprised us, though.