Roland Lamah raised his arms and clapped in appreciation for the FC Cincinnati fans tucked away in the corner of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Next, he turned and hugged Kenny Saief.
This was a short sequence, but a significant one.
Minutes earlier, Saief delivered a perfectly-weighted pass to Lamah that carved through the Atlanta United FC midfield and backline. Once Lamah connected on the through ball, he took a touch and slotted it to the back post for an 86th-minute goal.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium was silenced.
The goal helped FC Cincinnati earn a point at the reigning MLS Cup champions’ home opener. For context, Atlanta hadn’t dropped points at home since last August. For Cincinnati, it was the club’s first MLS point.
The quality of the goal matched the Orange and Blue’s performance: impressive.
In the season-opening loss at Seattle Sounders FC, the visitors looked overwhelmed and struggled connecting passes for the majority of the match. Some of that stemmed from playing a strong Seattle side; it also showed Cincinnati’s lack of cohesion.
Afterward, center back Nick Hagglund said FC Cincinnati had a week to practice their 4-2-3-1 formation after using a 3-4-3 throughout preseason. It showed. The fullbacks still looked like wing backs and often got too far forward.
But that changed in Atlanta.
Barring the fifth-minute goal conceded to the reigning MLS MVPJosef Martinez, FC Cincinnati managed the match well. Players created build ups through possession. Using a high press, the visitors also intercepted the ball in Atlanta territory.
Several key aspects that were lacking in Seattle were evident in Atlanta, and while a point is nice compensation, FC Cincinnati’s impressive growth in only a week is the most promising takeaway from the draw.
“During the course of this game, I was thinking we were showing major growth,” Head Coach Alan Koch said. “We believe in this group. We know it’s going to take time, but that growth was unfolding in front of our eyes as the game was going on and on and on.”
In truth, FC Cincinnati showed more growth in the week between Seattle and Atlanta than at any point during preseason. That’s a promising sign approaching the home opener Sunday afternoon at Nippert Stadium.
When the club faces the Portland Timbers, personnel might change in the backline — if Greg Garza is healthy enough to start at left back — but the shape should remain a back four.
Victor Ulloa and Leo Bertone looked more comfortable in the midfield roles in Week 2. Lamah’s goal showed his attacking threat on the outside channel. In addition, Kekuta Manneh and Allan Cruz looked impressive in their first Cincinnati starts.
That fact that all those players could maintain their place in the lineup, or that Kenny Saief could feature from the opening whistle, reveals there’s real quality and cohesion within FC Cincinnati’s starting lineup.
Throughout 2019, Koch has highlighted time. There was little of it entering MLS and between preseason to Seattle. Yet the transformation of the club from Seattle to Atlanta shows the potential for what could come Sunday at Nippert Stadium in what is shaping up to be a sell-out crowd for its national debut in MLS.