Match Preview: FCC looks to build on last year with season opener vs. Houston Dynamo

East vs West to start the year.

After a fantastic 2022 of turning around results and expectations, Pat Noonan’s FC Cincinnati is ready to open their 2023 season this Saturday, at home for a change, against Houston Dynamo.

FCC broke a string of three wooden spoons with a winning record and its first MLS playoff win last season. TQL Stadium became an even more daunting place to visit for opposing teams, as the home team’s on-field performance began to match the supporters’ enthusiastic energy. As is the nature of things, this season’s expectations are for the team to build and improve upon last season’s success.

The club has returned its primary starters and added at least two new ones. Noonan said in a media conference last week that the process of the preseason, including competition for starting spots, has been a boost to the team’s performance compared to this point last year (where the team lost its opener at Austin FC 5-0).

“The group as a whole has a better understanding of what it’s going to take to get on the field, whether it’s regular starters or guys who have been in a reserve position,” Noonan said. “I think we have some good depth going into the year. We also have guys coming into the preseason and now that preseason has progressed, playing at a higher level. To break into the XI, you’re going to have to be consistently training well, with a strong mentality. We’ve seen improvements from certain players with regard to mentality and also consistency.”

Noonan added that an area he wants to see more improvement on is decision-making and being better with the ball, in passing and in overall movement.

For Houston, General Manager Pat Onstad has brought in former DC United coach Ben Olsen to take over the first team. Olsen had a record of 132-94-152 in 10-and-half seasons at DC. He has a formidable project before him in South Texas.

In recent seasons, Houston has finished 13th and next-to-last in the Western Conference on 36 points (2022), 13th and last on 30 points (2021) 12th and last on 21 points (2020). The Dynamo last made the MLS postseason in 2017.

This season the Dynamo are pinning much of their hope for improvement on Designated Player Hector Herrera, a Mexican international signed last summer from FC Porto. The team actually slumped in form after Herrera joined, and he never looked entirely comfortable or motivated during the admittedly bleak closing period of the season.

Houston has brought in a few more new faces from abroad during the offseason, including left-back Djevencio van der Kust from FC Utrecht in Holland, striker Ivan Franco from Paraguayan club Libertad and midfielder Amine Bassi from Metz in France. Domestic pickups include Brad Smith at left back (recovering from an ACL) and Franco Escobar at the opposite fullback position.

Much of the team remains unchanged from last season’s dismal campaign, including Adalberto Carrasquila, forward Sebastian Ferreira and defender Teenage Hadebe.

For FCC, new signings Santiago Arias at right back, and Yerson Mosquera (on loan from English side Wolves) should make their competitive debuts from the start. Other new faces that might feature at some point include midfielder Marco Angulo and fullback Isaiah Foster.

The biggest question about the team’s starting lineup will revolve around Brenner, who joined the team late in the preseason following his failed transfer to English side Nottingham Forest. Supporters will no doubt hope to see the 18-goal scorer join fellow high-octane forwards Brandon Vazquez and Luciano Acosta on the field, at least at some point during Saturday’s match. Sergio Santos is most likely to replace Brenner if Noonan opts to hold the Brazilian out of the starting lineup. Another question is midfielder Obi Nwobodo, limited in training since picking up a knock in Florida. If he is unable to start Saturday, Angulo or Yuya Kubo are likely to be called upon.

The stage is set for FCC to start the season in a positive manner, but as always, the occasion itself, not the prelude, determines the season’s direction.

Match 1; Major League Soccer: FC Cincinnati vs. Houston Dynamo; Saturday, Feb. 25, TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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