What I’ll be watching for in 2023

A big season is just days away for FC Cincinnati. Here are 11 things to keep your eyes on.

We’re almost there. Opening night in the West End is almost 24 hours away. Last year, I wrote about 11 things I’d be watching for in the upcoming season and figured I’d reprise that format entering 2023. Some are making a return to the list again for good reasons and a few because we’re still looking for answers. 

1. Goalkeeper Improvement

It’s not an understatement to say that FCC’s goalkeeping was vastly improved in 2022. After all, the team had the worst shot-stoppers on record during its first three seasons in the league. Roman Celentano and Alec Kann graded out slightly negatively in terms of shot-stopping last year. In 27 matches, Celentano conceded 42 goals on shots valued at 41.0 expected goals based on Opta’s post-shot model. Among the 25 MLS goalkeepers who played at least 20 full matches, Celentano’s -1.0 PSxG plus/minus ranked 15th. All in all, not bad for a player who entered his first professional season as the nominal backup. 

So FCC stabilized the goalkeeper position in 2022, but how much upside is left? Clearly, folks at U.S. Soccer think highly of Celentano as he received his first national team call-up in January. If Celentano is Pat Noonan’s #1 option in goal, it’s not unreasonable to expect some improvement from him. The question is more one of how much can he improve. 

2. What Will Be Noonan’s Plan B?

Going into 2022, the expectation was that Noonan would rely on a 4-4-2 diamond like the one that had elevated his and Chris Albright’s statures in Philadelphia to the point that the two got their respective jobs in the Queen City. He certainly tried at the start of the season but quickly dropped it following the opener in Austin. The 3-5-2 that was likely the team’s Plan B entering the season became its most effective one. I think we all feel pretty good about how the 3-5-2 projects going forward. After all, it puts FCC’s best players in positions to succeed. But there will be games where players are hurt or some other factor necessitates a change in shape. And I’m very interested to see how Noonan approaches those games. 

3. Who Is Playing Right Back?

Another holdover from last year is the question of how right back minutes shake out. The role we’re projecting is a different one from last year but there’s now another name in the mix who could shake things up. Santiago Arias arrives in Cincinnati with likely the most distinguished club resume on the team, having played at Sporting, PSV, and Atletico Madrid. Injuries have hampered his last few years, however, leading to just 1,600 minutes of game time since the start of the 2019 season. His club and international pedigree are undeniable but the injury questions loom. Arias will hopefully provide a little bit more in the final third but it’s fair to assume we’ll still see a good bit of Alvas Powell (and Ray Gaddis) at right back, which isn’t a bad thing. Powell was solid last year, he just lacked the final ball at times. 

I’m expecting right back to a bit of a revolving door in 2023 but not for bad reasons. And finally, the Orange and Blue hopefully have the talent there to allow us to stop asking about right back upgrades. At least until the summer window opens. 

4. Who Makes A Leap?

There’s a little bit of overlap in this with #1 on the list. As I wrote above, it’s fair to assume Celentano will continue to improve. But if there’s a player I’m hoping, and expecting, to make a leap in 2023, it’s Ian Murphy. A year ago, Murphy was a rookie whose last competitive soccer came in the ACC playing for Duke University. He went through some growing pains but, to be fair, his roughest game of the year came playing out-of-position at left back. The coaching staff thought highly enough of him to give him the start in FCC’s playoff loss to Philadelphia, even if their hand was forced by a knock to Geoff Cameron. 

Murphy graded as an above-average center back according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals-added model. He didn’t look physically outmatched, either. Maybe I’m blinded by a, in my view, very rational adoration for left-footed center backs, but to expect a player who performed at a solid level right out of college to improve in year two doesn’t require a leap of faith. If Murphy can take a step forward and go from slightly above-average to a good MLS center back, the Orange and Blue will be in a really good place. 

5: Obi & Miazga 

A constant of the offseason has seemed to be questions about whether or not Chris Albright and the front office did enough to improve FCC’s defense going into 2023. I disagree with the premise of those questions. I’d argue that, since Albright’s two marquee additions, Obinna Nwobodo, and Matt Miazga, got on the field at the same time, the Orange and Blue’s defense played at a level that might be good enough to be in contention for trophies. 

The Union, who had one of the stingiest defenses in the Eastern Conference in 2022, conceded 1.11 xGA per match. That number isn’t all that far off what FCC held opponents to after Miazga’s arrival. It’s not the largest sample size but Miazga’s impact on the backline is inarguable. Similarly, a full season of Nwobodo will be a huge upgrade in midfield compared to how the team started the season in 2022. His ball-winning is truly elite and his ability to snuff out counterattacks provides a last line of defense as FCC attacks in numbers. 

6: How Do Midfield Minutes Shake Out?

Assuming health, Nwobodo’s name should be written in pen in FCC’s starting XI. Who partners with him in central midfield? It’ll be fascinating to see. Junior Moreno seems like the most likely starter on Saturday assuming Nwobodo can go. He might not be the most dynamic option but, after years of substandard central midfield play, Moreno’s level of competence was a huge upgrade. 

Marco Angulo, who arrived from Independiente del Valle in Ecuador as a U22 initiative signing, should challenge for starting minutes in 2023, but it remains to be seen if he’s secured a starting spot already. Clearly, the front office thinks he has huge potential but where exactly he falls on the depth chart now is a mystery. Yuya Kubo looked revitalized coming off the bench last season, and with another year of time in midfield, he should continue to provide a spark when needed with his ability to close down opponents and push the ball forward on the dribble. 

If it’s too soon for Angulo, then it’s definitely way too soon for Stiven Jimenez, who signed a homegrown contract in the offseason, the youngest player in club history to do so. Jimenez, 15, would join illustrious company if he were to make his first-team debut this season but it’s probably unrealistic to consider him as an option for big minutes. But that leads me to the next thing I’m interested in following this year. 

7: FCC2

Yes, seriously. I’m interested in FCC2 this year despite, I’ll be charitable here, some uneven performances last year. Chris Albright highlighted the reserve squad as a point of emphasis this offseason and the offseason additions seem to have raised both the floor and the ceiling for the team. Add to that a minutes crunch at the senior level that might leave young guys like Stiven Jimenez and Malik Pinto, who are clearly highly thought of by the FCC front office, without much run. So yes, FCC2 should be intriguing this year. Hopefully, they’ll be better on the field and we’ll get an opportunity to see some prospects up close as they make their way toward the first team.  

8: All Hail Barreal The Wing Back

People can get too hung up on formations. I know I’m guilty of it at times. Álvaro Barreal offers a great case study for FCC fans. He’ll almost certainly be on the pre-game graphics at left wingback in a 5-3-2, but make no mistake, he’ll be a key cog in the final third. Sure, we’ll still see Barreal defending deep as a left back on occasion when FCC is pinned deep in its defensive half. But he’d be doing that as a winger too. Barreal’s sheer energy was impressive last season, shuttling back and forth up and down the left wing. 

In a league where teams can’t just acquire the best talent on the market, Barreal represents a true value proposition for the Orange and Blue. He can impact the game going forward, either out wide or while underlapping, and either alone or in quick combination with a teammate. Lucho Acosta consistently drifts wide to Barreal’s side, overloading opposing fullbacks or wingers who aren’t prepared for the challenge. 

An adage goes that nobody starts out playing fullback, players get moved there from other positions. Barreal got his move to MLS as a winger but is now playing as a nominal defender. There might be some rough moments defensively but Barreal is so valuable going forward that his inclusion in the starting XI is a no-brainer. 

9: The Strikers

Honestly, the next two of these points feel like burying the lede but what can I say, #9 is a number for strikers. (I also love when players choose numbers much closer to 100 than 1, looking at you Junior Moreno). The #9 is usually worn by the team’s most dangerous goal scorer and since Brenner and Brandon Vazquez both finished 2022 with 18 goals, I figured I’d group them together here. 

There’s plenty to be written about how good both players were last year. Brenner might’ve run a little ahead of his expected goals, but his season, after a stop-and-go start, was something to behold. He went from being labeled as one of the biggest busts in MLS history to proving those doubters wrong in the span of just a few months. His ability to drop deep and combine with one-touch passes adds another element to the Orange and Blue’s attack. It’s more than likely that Brenner will be on his way to a club in a top-five league in the summer, but to do that, he’ll need to demonstrate that last year wasn’t a fluke. 

Vazquez will be looking to prove that he’s one of the best American forwards heading toward the Gold Cup and a potential move abroad of his own. Finally given an opportunity at regular MLS minutes, he took full advantage, showing elite movement in the box and the ability to hold up the ball as Acosta and Brenner flew past him up the field in transition. 

I expect both players to pick up where they left off in 2022 and I’ll be enjoying every minute of their partnership up top because who knows when we’ll see something like it again. 

10: Lucho

And #10 is the number for creators. 

There are plenty of data points to back a claim that Lucho Acosta is one of the best players in MLS. In 2022, he scored 10 goals, assisted 12 and led the league in expected assists and goal-creating actions while finishing second in shot-creating actions. 

But that’s not why I love watching him play. In addition to being very, very good and productive, Acosta has a willingness to, and pardon my language, try shit. Whether it’s nutmegging an opponent in midfield, slaloming through defenders in the box or trying to hit a rabona-throughball to a sprinting attacker. There’s no other player in Orange and Blue who can do the things he can with the ball at his feet. He demands attention no matter where he is on the field and no matter how low the percentage of success. 

Does that come back to bite him occasionally? Yes. Are there situations where maybe he should take the boring pass instead of trying to win a 3-v-1 at the top of the box? Probably. Frequent readers will know I like the numbers more than just about anyone but I’ll be forever willing to forgive Lucho for making a not-ideal decision because he’s fun as hell. And that, at the end of the day is why I watch soccer. And he’s pretty central to FCC’s success too and it sure looks like he cares a whole lot about winning. What’s not to love?

Long may he be FCC’s #10. 

11: Who Steps Up At Striker

Whew. After that last one, this feels a little bit more like an afterthought. I might not be as excited to sort out backup striker options as I am to watch Lucho ‘meg a defender back to the Mesozoic era,” but I am legitimately interested to see how the depth striker battle shapes up.  

Sergio Santos, for the time being, seems locked in as the third striker, bound for a good number of minutes in relief of Brenner or Brandon Vazquez depending on game situation. I’ll be watching to see who the fourth striker is. Though those minutes might be sparing early in the season, it’s probably best to operate under the assumption that Brenner will be moving on in the summer window. If Albright and Co. don’t have a replacement immediately lined up, that pecking order shifts down one. Santos and Vazquez with…who getting the bulk of those rotation minutes?

Dom Badji is back and could be the top option. He can provide a more like-for-like replacement to Vazquez and was in relatively limited early-season minutes. The real question mark is Quimi Ordonez. He’s coming off a limited FCC season but enjoyed a breakout U20 CONCACAF Championship where he was instrumental in helping Guatemala qualify for the 2023 U-20 World Cup in Indonesia. He’ll be the one I’ll be keeping an eye on as we get towards the end of games in the first half of the season and strikers are tiring. If Quimi proves to be an in-house option, look out MLS. 

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