Jaap Stam met his players in person for the first time on June 16.
A month later, he produced one of the best game plans of any match in FC Cincinnati’s young history. And not only that, he did so against an old friend he used to be an assistant for.
FCC’s gritty 1-0 win over Atlanta United FC wasn’t pretty, but it earned the team its first win under Stam and arrived days after a disheartening derby loss.
We asked for a response from the players. We got one.
Frankie Amaya is clearly emerging as a key player for the team, while Joseph-Claude Gyau was impressive in his MLS is Back Tournament debut. Praise should also go to the backline and to Haris Medunjanin and Caleb Stanko, who were tasked with a dirty job and produced a pretty result.
A team that conceded nine goals in the first three games of the 2020 regular season earned a clean sheet against the Eastern Conference favorites – without two Designated Players and their best attacking midfielder.
What we saw Thursday is a coach who understands its roster, and the qualities and deficiencies that persist. He took that and crafted the perfect game plan – one that included disciplined defending, patience to grow confidence and players who capitalized on their limited attacking opportunities.
There’s a misnomer in soccer that says the club controlling possession therefore controls the game. But if the team with possession can’t do anything with it, are they really in charge?
Stam deployed a back five with three center backs. Above them sat three of FCC’s most defensive midfielders: Medunjanin to sit deep and spray balls into space on offense, Stanko to break up Atlanta’s possession and Amaya, who can do the same, but with an attacking edge as well.
“We gave (Atlanta) time on the ball, so it looks like they had a lot of possession, but couldn’t create a lot of opportunities,” Stam said. “We were very calm, disciplined in what we needed to do and waiting for the moments to come out on the break at times … We succeeded in doing that.”
Staying calm can’t be understated.
Even when Cincinnati had a man advantage after Jake Mulraney’s second yellow, there wasn’t a rush to stray away from what was working.
While the broadcast commentators mocked FCC’s aggression and lack of getting forward, the Orange and Blue were patiently waiting to pull Atlanta out of position. It nearly worked when Yuya Kubo’s near-post effort was pushed wide for a corner on the hour mark, and did work when Amaya unleashed his first professional goal in the 76th minute.
There’s a common debate whether you want to play beautifully and maybe lose or win ugly.
Stam deploying a 1-4-3-3 (can’t forget the goalkeeper, as Gerard Nijkamp says) against Columbus on Saturday showed the team wants to play attractive, aggressive soccer. But those tactics were unhinged after 30 minutes and, truthfully, it became a matter of damage control.
Against Atlanta, FCC went with a more pragmatic 1-5-3-2. It’s not breathtaking, but it respects the opponent’s attacking quality and says, “We’re gonna do what we gotta to do to get a result.”
Yes, Atlanta had 10 men, then eventually nine, but they also had the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year and a future Argentine national team regular up front. FCC had two wingers – Regattin and Kubo – playing as center forwards.
Hopefully FC Cincinnati won’t play like this every match (and hopefully they won’t need to), but the win should be celebrated as a commendable achievement for a club that’s needed positive results to reiterate progress.
Stam and the team haven’t had much time together, and even he said this tournament is basically a preseason for him to implement a playing style for players to learn, practice and execute.
That takes a lot longer than a month, but progress also takes faith in knowing what you’re doing is paying off.
As Kendall Waston said, “Sooner or later, wins are going to come. This is a process that is just starting, so we have to be patient.”
FCC’s patience – and a phenomenal strike from their youngest player – earned the team an unlikely win over one of MLS’ best teams. That’s an achievement. And it’s equally as rewarding that the club’s commitment to Thursday’s game plan was rewarded with three points.
If this is a process, we’re at the very beginning.
What’s needed is more time and faith that improvements can and will continue. Nullifying an attacking team like Atlanta after conceding four goals just four days ago is commendable.
FC Cincinnati just produced one of their best wins since they joined MLS. In a game that resembled a chess match more than expansive, expressive soccer, FCC sat back, struck when they needed to and grinded out a win. Yes, executing a game plan like that can be pretty and ugly at the same time.
Progress is going to take time – something Stam hasn’t had much of. But we’ve also seen enough to know there’s progress being made, confidence growing in the players – and most importantly – a genuine belief that positive change is coming.
FCC have already come a long way since Saturday, and did so with less players to choose from. If this was the response we were hoping for, we got it.
Playing the beautiful game beautifully is idealistic and the team’s long-term plan. But it wasn’t realistic on Thursday morning.
Credit to Stam, his staff and the players for acknowledging that, executing their strategy, and, in return, earning a beautiful result.