Late in the first half, Darren Mattocks laid on the grass, spread his arms wide and looked toward the sky. He’d done everything he could do; it just wasn’t enough. His back-post curler was pushed behind for a corner kick.
That’s how FC Cincinnati’s night at Banc of California Stadium went: earning chances, the visitors just couldn’t finish them. Eventually, the match ended with a 2-0 loss to LAFC, the league leaders.
But that score line – and the loss – undercut some of the quality the Orange and Blue produced in Los Angeles. In truth, some of the biggest obstacles to overcome occurred before the team even left Cincinnati.
On Thursday, when the club flew west, left back Greg Garza tweaked a calf muscle. The day before that, right back Alvas Powell got injured. Roland Lamah hardly practiced during the week and was on the bench for the first time to start a match this season.
“It’s been a tough week,” Head Coach Alan Koch said. “We lost a few players. I’m proud with how our players responded.”
With some players lost, that meant new-found opportunities, which delivered respectable results.
Justin Hoyte started at right back against LAFC and made his first MLS appearance. Roughly two years ago, the defender arrived at FC Cincinnati on a trial to see if he could make the USL squad. Against MLS’ top team so far this season, he showed why he not only belongs on an MLS roster, but belonged on the field.
The 34-year-old gained possession five times, won three interceptions and had one block and a clearance.
“Obviously, I am disappointed with the result,” Hoyte said. “It is as tough game playing against LAFC. They have some great attacking players and you always have to defend well. I thought we defended well on occasions. We could’ve done better in some cases. But just finally happy to get a start and to be part of the starting 11.”
In the midfield, Caleb Stanko made his first MLS start.
Before the game, he had four appearances as a sub, but none lasting longer than 19 minutes. Against LAFC, he replaced Victor Ulloa in the lineup and played a crucial role snapping spells of LAFC possession, while also creating opportunities for teammates going forward.
Stanko gained possession eight times, made six tackles, three interceptions and one clearance. If Saturday night proved anything, it revealed he’s had limited minutes on the field, but he’s capable of providing quality to FC Cincinnati’s midfield.
“It was great to be on the field,” Stanko said. “It was a great atmosphere. I’m super happy. It’s just unfortunate about the loss.”
Other than allowing a 93rd-minute goal to Carlos Vela as they were pressing upfield for the equalizer, FC Cincinnati’s backline kept the home side largely quiet – a feat no other club has done in 2019.
Through the first six matches of the season, LAFC was averaging 3.2 goals per game.
But what was arguably more important in Saturday’s match was despite lineup changes and playing the league’s toughest opponent, FC Cincinnati showed they can hang and maintain moments of creativity and stout defending against anyone.
FCC created chances in the final third and seemed unlucky to not score. Good combination play from Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh routinely saw the two forwards baring down on LAFC’s goal. The only thing missing was a goal itself.
But those will come.
The chances created will lead to goals scored. Stopping tough opponents will lead to clean sheets earned.
Through seven matches, FC Cincinnati have eight points. But they’ve also played against six teams that featured in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs last season and have shown that’s an obtainable final destination at the end of 2019.
“To come here and be right in the game right and until the end and to manage a lot with what LAFC threw at us, I’m very, very proud of the group,” Koch said. “We came here and created ample chances. We could’ve capitalized on one of those and obviously it’s be a different story right now. I’m proud of how the group got through a lot this week.”