Seattle showdown to provide FCC with early season test

FC Cincinnati has played a pair of matches in the young 2023 season, resulting in decent outcomes but a sense of uncertainty about the team’s overall performance level. Saturday’s match against Seattle Sounders will thus serve as an acid test for the team’s effort to establish itself as a leading side in Major League Soccer.

On paper, a 2-1 win over Houston and a scoreless draw at Orlando City to begin the season are quite acceptable. Only four of 29 MLS teams have bettered that beginning by taking all six points available to them (Miami, New England, St. Louis and Saturday’s opposition from the Pacific Northwest).

But with the expectations placed on this year’s edition of FCC, both from around the league and within the club itself, head coach Pat Noonan said his side will be eager to lay down a marker both in performance and result against an opponent already being mentioned as a 2023 Supporters’ Shield contender.

“At different stages of the season, there are matchups or results that when you look back on the year, kind of, are a good indication of where you end up, with successes and/or failures, but this is a good early test for us for different reasons,” Noonan said in comments released by the club. “One, they’ve won two games pretty comfortably. In watching them, they haven’t conceded a goal and they’ve scored six. They’re kind of sharp in all aspects of the game right now. For our group, we didn’t have the best performance week one and (then) we had a better performance, but the results didn’t coincide with how we played, so, it’s good for us early on to understand where this particular group is as we match up against one of the top teams in our league. So, like I said, I’m excited to see how our group steps on the field on our home field and with our fans behind us and see how we, in different ways, can make them uncomfortable. But we also understand that there’s a lot of things that we need to be focused on, on their side, to limit their attack, to limit how they can put us under pressure, to limit how they can move the ball and make us chase the game. There’s some specifics in that, but it’s a really good early test for us and if we find a way to win this game, regardless of how we play. I think that’s important that you beat good teams at all stages of the season.”

Seattle is coming off a 2022 season where it won the CONCACAF Champions League but finished 11th in the Western Conference (following five consecutive seasons placing second).  Following a disappointing 1-0 loss to Egyptian side Al Ahly at the FIFA Club World Cup, Seattle has opened MLS play with back-to-back victories, defeating Colorado 4-0 and Real Salt Lake 2-0, both games played at home.

Brian Schmetzer’s team has benefited from three goals by U.S. Men’s National Team forward Jordan Morris and two from new acquisition Heber. Attacking midfielder Cristian Roldan has the team’s other goal, while his brother, outside back Alex Roldan, has a pair of assists.

Seattle has fielded the same starting XI in the two league games, lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Alex Roldan has been joined in the back line by left back Nouhou and center backs Jackson Ragen and Yeimar. Veteran midfielder Joao Paulo is back in the heart of midfield after an ACL injury last year. He is accompanied by Albert Rusnak. Morris, Cristian Roldan and Heber are joined in a dynamic attacking quartet by Uruguayan Nicolas Lodeiro, who leads MLS this season with eight key passes.

Update: Heber has been ruled out of Saturday’s match with a  hamstring injury, but the Sounders’ depth is demonstrated again with top players Raul Ruidiaz and Freddy Montero returning to fitness.

Stefan Frei continues as a mainstay between the sticks for Seattle, having been voted as Team MVP in 2022. The 36-year-old has 93 career shutouts in MLS following the opening two clean sheets.

Noonan recounted the talent present in the Seattle squad and reiterated just how impressive a side Saturday’s opposition can be.

“So I’ve just named essentially a group that’s won a Champions League title, that’s won MLS Cup (in 2019), so, the group that we anticipate seeing is a group that’s proven winners,” Noonan said. “And that’s a good challenge for us because we’re playing a team after only two weeks of season play that looks very strong, they look like a top team early on. And so I like the fact that we get a really strong group to test us. But we’re going to have to be very good on the day if we want to win the game.”

For the Orange & Blue, defending well and creating chances stand as performance positives, while the failure to convert good chances into goals, especially last weekend at Orlando, were points of emphasis for the team this week in training.

Last season, the synergy between attackers Luciano Acosta, Brandon Vazquez and Brenner provided the main impetus in lifting the team to its best MLS record and first playoff berth. Noonan recalled his team having to outscore opponents to win games at times and said overall defensive play was a focus in building this year’s edition of the team.

FCC has added additional parts this season with right back Santiago Arias playing well in his debut vs. Houston before missing last week with an injury (with veteran right back Ray Gaddis deputizing ably in his absence vs. Orlando). Yerson Mosquera, a loan signing from English side Wolves, has impressed with his play in central defense, complementing Matt Miazga and Nick Hagglund (who signed a contract extension this week).

Alvaro Barreal has been arguably the top all-around performer for FCC so far, showing improvement in his positional awareness at left back and continuing his role from last season as an attacking threat. Midfielders Obinna Nwobodo and Junior Moreno have started the season in decent form as well.

But the attacking trio is what made the biggest difference for the team last season, and this season they are still searching for something approaching the fluency they developed last season in the forward third. The Orlando game did provide some promise, however, as Brenner, Acosta and Vazquez all had decent chances to score.

Noonan mentioned this as a positive but also summarized succinctly: “Obviously we’ll need to be better in front of goal and we’ll try to put both (good defensive and offensive performances) together Saturday against Seattle.”

Whether that occurs will play a big role in whether FCC passes this literal and symbolic test to their season’s ambitions.

Match 3: FC Cincinnati vs. Seattle Sounders; 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 11, TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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