FC Cincinnati’s 1-0 victory in Nashville on Saturday night wasn’t the prettiest for long stretches. FCC defended when it needed to and cashed in on one of its many chances in transition to take all three points. Nashville doesn’t lose a lot of games at home and FCC was clearly the more dangerous team in the second half while also limiting Nashville to few opportunities to get back in the game.
Though emotions ran high, the Orange and Blue managed the end of the game despite a depleted lineup due to injury and international duty. Winning on the road in MLS is always a tall task but FCC took care of business, and in the end, looked fairly comfortable doing it. That’s something that hasn’t happened all that much in the last few years. There’s a lot to break down but I settled on diving deep into two things: Brandon Vazquez getting onto the scoresheet and Malik Pinto’s debut.
Trust the Process
Last week, the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Pat Brennan wrote a great piece about Vazquez’s scoreless streak to start the year. The underlying numbers, even in a small sample size, showed that goals would likely come. Well, after Saturday, Brandon Vazquez is officially off the mark in 2023, bagging the winner in the 48th minute. The goal came directly from something FCC supporters have gotten used to, Vazquez being in the right place at the right time.
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) March 26, 2023
Even before he scored, underlying numbers suggested Vazquez would be back on the scoresheet. After Saturday’s game, Vazquez’s 15 shots in 2023 rank 10th in MLS, and his 25 touches in the opposing penalty area are the sixth most in the league. More importantly, those shots are coming from dangerous areas, reflected in his 1.9 non-penalty expected goals, good enough for ninth in MLS at the time of writing.
Courtesy of Wyscout
Finishing ability is a touchy subject in soccer. I’m of the opinion that the most important thing a striker can do to score goals is to show an ability to get into the right spaces to take shots. Whether or not a player is a “good” finisher (if there is such a thing in the first place) matters a whole lot less than whether that player is in consistently dangerous positions to score. Vazquez’s ability to find space in opposing penalty areas and take shots has continued into 2023 after being on full display last year. Though the goals are lagging a little bit, it’s just a matter of time before FCC supporters see his name on the scoresheet even more.
With Junior Moreno and Marco Angulo away on international duty and Yuya Kubo unavailable through injury, Pat Noonan opted to reach further down the depth chart rather than changing formation or shifting players into different roles. Enter Pinto for his professional debut.
Pinto kept things simple in the middle of the field against Nashville. He looked to play simple passes and didn’t try to force anything.
“After the first maybe five minutes, he looked like he got way more comfortable connecting simple passes,” Noonan said. “Defensively, I think him and Obi [Nwobodo] had a pretty good partnership on the night just to try to help take away passes to [Hany] Muhktar, who you can see how difficult he is to deal with. I was really pleased with Malik’s performance.”
According to Football Reference, Pinto completed all of his 22 pass attempts. As you can see on his pass map above, not all of those passes were sideways or backward, either. Pinto led the team with five passes into the final third, providing a valuable link between midfield and attack. Six of Pinto’s completed passes found Lucho Acosta, including one that provides a great example of how a pass can be simple but still lead to a big chance.
In the 11th minute, FCC won the ball in midfield off a clearance from Nashville Goalkeeper Joe Willis. Obi Nwobodo found Pinto in the middle of the field under little pressure. Nashville’s double-pivot of Dax McCarty and Sean Davis were caught a little bit in no man’s land, and Pinto split the pair with a one-touch pass right to Acosta’s feet. Brenner, who started the sequence already ahead of Shaq Moore, kept running towards Nashville’s goal and Acosta played another simple pass to spring Brenner in space. Unfortunately, Brenner’s shot was saved but Pinto’s vision and decisiveness just 11 minutes into his debut set up a scoring opportunity for the Orange and Blue.
It seems unlikely that FCC’s midfield depth chart has been upended, but after Saturday, it’s clear why the front office was comfortable signing Pinto to the senior roster. He’ll provide additional cover going forward, but Pinto’s development, whether it’s with first-team minutes or FCC2, will be something to follow closely this season.