Soccer in the Queen City is finally back as FC Cincinnati won its first opening game of an MLS campaign. The 2-1 victory over the Houston Dynamo wasn’t the prettiest at times but not all wins are. After the game, manager Pat Noonan said, “The positive is that we won, so credit to the group for figuring out a way to walk off the field with three points because it was certainly not our best performance.” The Orange and Blue didn’t meet the highs of last season, either offensively or defensively, but there were stretches of play where the team looked dominant and others when it was very much second-best.
Noonan said, “Early on in the season when teams aren’t at their best, you emphasize the importance of winning. That was one of the things that we succeeded in tonight.” He continued, “But from myself on down to I would say every player on the field outside of the reserves that come in and I think did a pretty good job, I’m only able to pick out a couple of guys that had a strong night.” All in all, not too surprising for the first game of a season. But as Noonan said, FCC won and got the 2023 MLS season started on the right note.
Set Pieces Issues
The Dynamo looked consistently dangerous on set pieces which is not the situation you want to find yourself in when playing with three center-backs. Houston threatened FCC on multiple occasions throughout the match but never more than on set pieces. Per Fotmob, over two-thirds of the Dynamo’s xG came from or directly following set pieces.
HH ➡️ Tate Schmitt
— Houston Dynamo FC (@HoustonDynamo) February 26, 2023
Yerson Mosquera seemed to allow his mark, fullback Tate Schmitt, to get goal-side of him and score the equalizer. To be fair to the Dynamo, Hector Herrera hit quality deliveries all night, too. The Orange and Blue rarely looked comfortable in clearing the ensuing danger. Some of that seemed to be unlucky bounces, some is surely the fact that two players key to set piece defending were making their debuts. Also, it’s still just the first game of the season. All signs point to an improvement in set-piece defending. But it’s definitely something to monitor as we look forward to the trip to Orlando City next weekend.
Álvaro Barreal picked up where he left off at the end of 2022 on Saturday – marauding up and down the left side of the field. Barreal assisted Sergio Santos’s first goal of the season and played a key role in the second.
Breaking down Santos’ goal, MLS Soccer’s Matt Doyle wrote in his column, “If Lucho is weak-side, have the strong-side wingback pinch in to become an ad hoc playmaker.” Barreal’s technical ability and willingness to attack defenses, either on the dribble or with a pass give FCC an upgrade over many other left-backs in the league because of his pedigree as an attacking player.
Get loud, Cincy! pic.twitter.com/prDaqmP48e
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) February 26, 2023
Another example of the danger Barreal creates came in the 13th minute. Playing quickly on the right side, Nick Hagglund passed to Obi Nwobodo before Houston could get set defensively. Nwobodo took two dribbles and looked to switch play to Barreal just left of the center circle. But Obi under-hit his pass a little bit, making it a seeming 50/50 between Barreal and Houston’s right back, Franco Escobar. Barreal narrowly beat Escobar to the ball, getting a touch and redirecting it toward Houston’s goal, setting up a 5-v-4 break.
The sequence didn’t lead to a shot as Artur slowed Barreal as he got closer to the penalty area allowing a center back to come across and clear his attempted pass to Santos out of play. Having a player like Barreal lurking on the weak side, ready to spring a counterattack against an isolated fullback should continue to generate good offensive opportunities for the Orange and Blue in transition.
Wherever the ball is on the field, Barreal can find ways to attack defenses and that should lead to more displays like Saturday’s.
Stymied In Midfield
From the opening whistle, the Dynamo set up defensively to deny central progression from FCC’s central defenders to central midfielders Nwobodo and Junior Moreno. When the Orange and Blue attempted to play out of the back, Houston’s three forward players shifted centrally, denying clear passing lanes to FCC’s pair of deeper sitting midfielders. Even when the Dynamo’s midfield three, Hector Herrera, Coco Carrasquilla, and Artur were compact and central, often quickly closing down Moreno and Nwobodo.
The two combined to complete just six progressive passes in the match and the passing chart below reflects their numerous horizontal passes. Obi showed some flashes on the dribble, taking opposing players on and beating them upfield. Still, the lack of ball progression from the two deepest midfielders hurt the Orange and Blue’s ability to control the game.
Houston’s three central midfielders
FCC challenged the Dynamo high up the field with its strikers stepping high. Lucho Acosta marked the deepest-lying midfielder, with Nwobodo and Moreno stepping near the other two. The press worked for FCC multiple times, forcing turnovers in dangerous situations or aimless clearances won by Cincinnati’s center backs.
However, when Houston played through the press, Nwobodo and Moreno were left in the unenviable situation of having to track back and then usually defend 3-v-2 in the middle of the field.
That numeric disadvantage seemed to be a tactical choice from Noonan by opting to keep Acosta high up the field. Lucho didn’t play as a midfielder on Saturday, despite how he was listed on the lineup card. Instead, he was positioned much more like a forward, providing an outlet for the Orange and Blue to find on the counter. And it nearly worked on multiple occasions.
Lucho’s eight progressive passes received led FCC on Saturday. But because he stayed so high looking to attack a Houston team that had pushed forward, FCC lost the midfield battle. Usually, a pass map like the one above would be ideal for Lucho, with lots of opportunities on the ball in Zone 14. On Saturday, the trade-off for those touches was at least some midfield control.