FC Cincinnati defensive core shines despite ‘sluggish’ overall performance

202402225 FCCvsTOR Match GB 161

A clean sheet is something to be proud of, but FC Cincinnati made it clear postgame that their nil-nil draw at home with Toronto FC wasn't what they were looking for. 

FC Cincinnati started their 2024 season on Sunday afternoon in celebration, but ended in disappointment, or rather, frustration. After raising a banner for winning the 2023 MLS Supporters’ Shield and recognizing 2023 MLS MVP Luciano Acosta in his 100th cap as captain of The Orange and Blue, FCC was held scoreless for 90 minutes while only generating 1.3 xG on seven shots on target. 

From the get-go, FCC struggled to create chances in the final third, with TFC (last year's last-place finishers in MLS) happy to sit back and defend their end, and when major opportunities did arise, the home side lacked that final touch of quality needed to secure a goal. 

"A sloppy, slow game," head coach Pat Noonan said to describe the afternoon matchup. "You can see just rhythm, intensity, quality, all of that was lacking specifically on our side. … There wasn't a ton out there for us, in terms of our attack on a consistent basis. Sergio (Santos) had a good look, Lucho had a good look, but a lot of half chances." 

It was just the third time in Noonan’s tenure at FC Cincinnati that the club had played to a nil-nil draw, the first in nearly a year. While FCC hasn't always been offensive juggernauts, going through the ebbs and flows any team does, it is a rare result for Noonan's club. 

The pace of the game was the thing most clearly affected for FCC. Last season and into this preseason, FCC has looked the part of a quick, dynamic, flexible squad. Part of that identity seemed missing in the season opener. Missed chances, short passes, and other tempo issues plagued the FC Cincinnati offense from start to finish. 

There are multiple potential causes for that. In all likelihood, a combination of all three created Sunday's frustrations.

The growing pains, in some ways, were clear. FCC started five newcomers to the roster, including two new center-backs, a wingback, a midfielder and a striker. On top of that, Yuya Kubo made his regular season debut as a wingback. Aaron Boupendza started the match as a reserve due to a minutes restriction, and Santos took over as the striker. FCC was utilizing an essentially new, never-before-seen lineup. 

On many occasions, you could see, for example, Acosta and one of those new players, Luca Orellano, building effectively. But when it came to the final action or finish, one of the two or a third player needed to finish the play just couldn't link up or was moving at a different pace. While FC Cincinnati is clearly more connected than they were at the beginning of preseason, integrating seven changes to the lineup can take time to reach peak performances. 

It also must be noted that FC Cincinnati played today on short rest after their Thursday evening contest in Kingston, Jamaica, in the Concacaf Champions Cup. The team didn’t return home to Cincinnati until 7:30 a.m. Friday morning (as this writer did), and the sluggishness Noonan described is hard to separate. 

Is it directly correlative to FCC’s performance or the entirety of the problem? No, probably not. But it certainly is interesting that of the six MLS clubs to play a Concacaf game in the midweek, the combined record of said MLS clubs on matchday one was zero wins, one loss, and five draws with five goals scored combined. It's a hard connection not to make. 

Even in frustration, one group stood out. 

Miles Robinson, Ian Murphy and Kipp Keller combined to neutralize the Toronto FC by allowing just two shots on target and 0.6 xG, putting out fires before they started and keeping TFC away from dangerous positions.

"They were probably our strongest performers," Noonan said of his center-back core. "I thought on the defensive side of the ball, they did a really good job with aerial duels and defending with space behind at times. Defending the box, I thought they did a good job. 

"There were certainly a lot of moments in the first half, the first portion of that first half where they had to defend in space and in isolation, and I thought, for the most part, they passed the test there, so pleased overall."

It was their MLS and TQL Stadium debut for two of those three. Robinson and Keller were playing alongside Murphy in a combination that had never been seen before.

Each had their moments. Murphy looked like his usual solid self on the left. At the same time, Robinson took the lead in the middle of the trio, a role not necessarily foreign to him but not his natural position either. Keller took over on the right and proved himself in the role. 

In many ways, Keller's performance stands out the most of the three. Robinson and Murphy, to their credit, are expected to be top selections for Noonan and his staff all season, so we will see plenty of them. Keller, though, was acquired as a depth option in the offseason in exchange for a third-round draft pick in the 2024 MLS SuperDraft from Austin FC and stepped into the starting role due to Matt Miazga's suspension. Sunday was Keller's seventh career MLS start over three seasons. Still, if he continues to perform as he did … it's easy to see FC Cincinnati feeling very comfortable with the depth at the center-back position once Miazga and Nick Hagglund are available again.

"Overall, (the defenders) were probably our strongest performers," Noonan said finished succinctly, restating just how impactful they were.

At the end of the day, though, the club’s overall performance wasn't up to par for players and coaches. Goalkeeper Roman Celentano described the result as "certainly not enough." Noonan said there were too many 'average' performances. 

Fortunately, FCC returns to action Wednesday to take on Cavalier FC at TQL Stadium in the second leg of the Concacaf Champions Cup. The quick turnaround contributes to the stress that has plagued other teams in the league in similar situations. Still, it also provides a chance to shake off the draw at home and adjust to return to FCC's dominant ways. 

"We'll take a look at some things, have a quick turnaround and will try to have a better performance on Wednesday," Noonan said with clarity on how FCC plans to rebound. "One game is too early to make an assessment … but we have good new pieces and good returning pieces. So, that's the expectation."