Complimenting a defense that holds MLS’ record for most goals conceded in a season might seem ironic, but that’s the situation the Orange and Blue sit in currently having earned clean sheets in two of their last three games.
As FC Cincinnati have tinkered tactics to be more defensive, results indicate that strategy is working.
After being pummeled 5-1 at Nippert Stadium on Sept. 7 by Toronto FC, the team had a team meeting air everything out and talk about the struggles. Since then, we’ve seen a better-organized side defensively.
In the first 29 games of the season, Cincinnati conceded 2.5 goals per match. It was scoring one goal per game. In the last three games, the goals allowed dipped to 0.66 goals per game. The side have also kept the last three opponents scoreless in the first half.
There’s been a major difference, which is mostly attributed to a new strategy.
“I think we play more compact, so we give less space away,” center back Maikel van der Werff said. “Everyone is tighter and close to each other. That works the best now for us.”
When Gerard Nijkamp was named general manager in late May, he said he wanted to play free-flowing, attacking soccer. In possession, that means building from the back, movement and creating space. Defensively, there’d be a high press to suffocate the opponent’s possession.
FCC have tried that this season, with poor results. Score lines say as much.
That “Dutch” style might be FC Cincinnati’s future, but it doesn’t fit with their present players. So, there was a shift and the club have dropped deeper into their territory and defended in compact blocks.
Rather than high pressing Atlanta United FC – the reigning MLS Cup champions – Cincinnati sat back and absorbed waves of Atlanta attacks. That strategy, despite a 2-0 loss last Wednesday, was largely a positive one. The goals both came from superhuman, highlight-reel efforts from reigning MLS MVP Josef Martínez, who told Atlanta media after the game that if FCC had played like that all season, they wouldn’t be last in the league.
Against the Montreal Impact four days earlier, the Orange and Blue grabbed an early goal, then sat back and earned a first win since July 13. Afterward, Head Coach Ron Jans said, “This is not for the beauty of the game, it’s for the result.”
And that’s how Cincinnati played in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with the Chicago Fire. Other than an exhilarating final 15 minutes to the match, the game largely lacked rhythm and momentum. For a team trying to earn points in the standings and not points for attacking creativity, this strategy is working.
“The last few weeks, I think we did well,” van der Werff said. “That gives you confidence, of course. In the end, it’s important to start (and keep) a clean sheet.”
With two games remaining in the inaugural MLS season, Cincinnati will likely concede a goal. The stats say as much. The first one conceded will be the 75th this year and the record breaker. So be it.
But the team’s resiliency in the past three matches shouldn’t go unappreciated, and that has helped provide a new meaning to the final month of the campaign. That certainly deserves a compliment.