FC Cincinnati’s new additions show promise but aren’t on the same page (yet)

FC Cincinnati’s 2024 season didn’t get off to the start that the 25,513 people at TQL Stadium on Sunday afternoon would have hoped with a 0-0 draw to reigning Wooden Spoon recipient Toronto FC. However, there’s no reason to panic. Five starters made their FCC debuts on Sunday, so it’s understandable that the team didn’t look as cohesive and free-flowing as it did last year. It’ll take some time for players to gel on the field, and with just one competitive game in the books, things certainly could have looked a lot worse. Plus, the Toronto team that won the Wooden Spoon in 2023 bore little resemblance to the team playing at TQL Stadium on Sunday afternoon. John Herdman had his Toronto team pressing well and solid in defense when sitting deep.

The Center Backs are Good

Even without reigning MLS Defender of the Year Matt Miazga, FCC’s new centerbacks Miles Robinson and Kipp Keller, along with Ian Murphy, made the position a strength. 

Robinson, the Orange and Blue’s highest profile offseason signing, dominated in the air, winning all seven of his aerial duels according to FBRef. Importantly, most of those challenges came in midfield. FCC pressed Toronto relentlessly, disrupting TFC’s attempts to build up out of the back and forcing long balls towards midfield. Robinson’s dominance in the air resulted in the Orange and Blue regaining possession after nearly all of those long balls. 

Keller was tested a little bit more, especially playing on the same side as Swiss Army Knife Yuya Kubo, who made his first league start at right wingback. Though Keller’s defending had to be more reactive, he acquitted himself well. He interceded in two of Toronto’s biggest chances of the game and very much looks the part of a solid rotation option, if not better, for the Orange and Blue. 

Mixed Debuts Elsewhere

New signings Pavel Bucha and Corey Baird joined Robinson and Keller in making their MLS debuts in Orange and Blue. 

Bucha, paired with Obi Nwobodo in a double-pivot at the base of midfield, didn’t have the best debut. For stretches of his 90-plus minutes on the field, he struggled to impact the game and made some potentially costly mistakes. The difference in game speed from last week’s CONCACAF Champions Cup game in Kingston to Sunday was on display and at times Bucha struggled to keep pace. However, FCC supporters shouldn’t be worried. He’ll be fine. 

Corey Baird’s FCC league debut was similarly up-and-down. Paired with Sergio Santos, Baird played a limited role throughout his 77 minutes. Though he nearly scored an acrobatic attempt off a set piece in the first half, Baird struggled to consistently find the ball. Of his 22 touches, just seven came in the final third, according to FBRef. Though the touch number is slightly different (27) on WhoScored, Baird’s touch map clearly shows a team struggling to link play between midfield and its strikers.

It’s obvious to say but Baird isn’t the same kind of player as Brandon Vazquez. Finding a way to move the ball up the field, especially in moments of transition, without relying on Vazquez’s hold-up ability is something FCC will have to adjust to. As FCC’s new core of starters learn how to play together, I’ll be watching to see how they solve that problem.

What Would Barreal Do?

Luca Orellano, officially announced as an FCC player on Friday, debuted at left wingback and attempted to fill the gap left by Álvaro Barreal. Orellano’s upside on the ball was evident. He already seems to be developing chemistry with Lucho Acosta who continued his habit of drifting to the left wing to combine. Orellano demonstrated his ability to beat players on the dribble and get the ball into the box, both in possession and by finding teammates. 

One moment that didn’t lead to much, but I thought was worth highlighting nonetheless, came in the 32nd minute. Orellano received a pass on the left side of the field and dribbled inside, passing to Keller just behind the halfway line. Instead of heading back to the left wing, Orellano continued his run up the middle of the field, drawing the attention of defenders and filling previously vacant space. When the ball ends up on the right side of the field, Orellano is in position to be an unmarked late-arriving runner to attack a cross into the box.

If you’re wondering WWBD (What Would Barreal Do?) in this situation, I think it’s just about what Orellano did. Which is a good sign for him finding the same dangerous spaces that Barreal did for FCC. Orellano’s attacking instincts should add something relatively unique in MLS, especially because it seems Pat Noonan will give him the same amount of freedom to find space as his predecessor enjoyed. 

Defensively, Orellano was solid, especially considering he ended up in multiple one-on-one situations with Italian international Federico Bernardeschi. This isn’t to say that he was perfect but Noonan and company don’t need perfection defensively. Considering that Sunday was Orellano’s debut at wingback, he acquitted himself well and, if he continues to improve, he’ll be good enough for what FCC needs.

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