FC Cincinnati’s attack is better than you think but there’s still room for improvement

FC Cincinnati’s 2-1 win against DC United on Saturday night preserved its perfect record at TQL Stadium in 2023. The win was yet another example of a game where the Orange and Blue did not play at its best but still did enough to secure all three points. So, just about a third of the way through the season, is it time to officially worry about FCC not hitting its peak? 

Offensive Woes?

There’s a disconnect between how we’re talking about FCC’s attack and the actual results on the field. Before sitting down to write this, I would’ve agreed that FCC’s offensive output was struggling and that a surprising defense was to thank for FCC’s position tied atop the Eastern Conference. But that’s not really the case. Something can be two things, of course, in this case, FCC is scoring a more-than-respectable number of goals (backed up by even better underlying numbers) but the attack still isn’t what most of us expected coming into the season. 

First, the good news.

FCC has scored 15 goals, tied for 7th most in MLS, and is 5th in the league per American Soccer Analysis with 16.65 xG. (Side note: I have some questions about Fbref after a revision to last week’s 1-1 draw against New England – but that’s a conversation for another time).

Additionally, Brandon Vazquez and Sergio Santos both rank in the top 7 in MLS in non-penalty expected goals in 2023, with 3.4 and 3.6 npxG respectively. Granted, Vazquez has played more minutes than most of his peers in the top-10 but he hasn’t been bad, despite limited opportunities of late. I’m still bullish on his season even with some structural issues that might be holding him, and the rest of the team back. 

For a season that has felt so much like offensive underperformance, and not to say that it isn’t, the Orange and Blue’s attack has been better than many in the league. And now that we’re 11 games into the season, the sample size is at a point where it’s not just noise. 

Brenner’s 26-minute cameo on Saturday certainly made things look better. He was instrumental in the build-up to Álvaro Barreal’s goal. Brenner’s backheel up the right sideline to break DC’s pressure and then, after receiving a return pass, to find a wide-open Lucho Acosta just beyond the halfway line before releasing Barreal in behind. 

So the attacking play has felt stagnant but the results, at least compared to the rest of the league, hasn’t been as bad as it’s seemed. Still, there’s something to FCC’s attacking play just not clicking. And there’s evidence to support that, too. 

Below are two charts comparing FCC’s possession-adjusted final third and attacking penalty area entries in the last two seasons. (Adjusting for possession should make for better comparisons as it normalizes across games when FCC dominated the ball and vice versa.)  

As is pretty clear from the charts, FCC just isn’t getting the ball into the final third or the attacking penalty area in 2023 as much as it did in 2022. That means fewer opportunities for attacking players to get on the ball in dangerous areas. So despite the underlying, and goal-scoring, numbers being pretty good, we’re also not wrong about FCC’s attack not operating at its peak. 

If the Orange and Blue can figure out a way to more reliably get the ball into the final third, maybe things will start to click and we’ll see a return to the offensive fireworks of 2022. That would be great news for FCC supporters and bad news for the rest of the league. 

A Quick Note On Powell’s Return

A bright spot on Saturday was the return of Alvas Powell to the starting lineup at right wingback. Last week I joined Talking Tactics for a segment to talk about the Orange and Blue’s issues with ball progression and speculated that Powell could provide another dimension in the build-up phase.

Powell was a viable option in the attacking third of the field, finding space to receive the ball around the penalty area. Compare his pass map, on the right, to Ray Gaddis’ against New England, on the left. Powell’s willingness to look to switch the point of attack helped FCC navigate through DC’s defensive shape. 

He also pushed the ball forward on the dribble. His five progressive carries led the Orange and Blue on the night, providing an option up the right side, missing in past weeks. Getting more from the right-back position should allow Barreal to do more of what he’s so good at, impact the game in the final third. 

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