Five big questions this preseason

TUCSON, Ariz. – Following the club’s first preseason practice on Monday, coach Ron Jans said this is the happy part of preseason, when players are introducing themselves and everyone has a clean slate.

Jans said that’ll change eventually soon, though. As the club progresses through preseason, expect position battles for lineup spots and to even make the matchday squad.

A lot will happen between now and the season opener on March 1, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early start wondering what FC Cincinnati’s future starting XIs might resemble. 

Here are five big questions of the club’s second MLS preseason.

How big of a difference can one offseason make?

Hopefully a big one. FCC ended last season on a high note – unbeaten in four of their last five games – but those results offered more short-term solutions than a glimpse into the club’s future.

Cincinnati finished last in the league in points, goals scored and goals allowed. If there’s a positive takeaway, those stats are part of the past and not the present.

GM Gerard Nijkamp – who joined the club in late May – had the offseason to transform the club’s roster – one which many pundits said was structured too rigidly to allow much change at all. But so far, Nijkamp and director of scouting and player personnel Hunter Freeman have facilitated seven player signings so far, 12 departures and so far and two SuperDraft picks. And there’s still time for more moves.

On the coaching side, Ron Jans only led the club 10 matches before players left for their offseason. With a full preseason, what can Jans and his coaching staff implement with the players they want implementing it?

A full preseason should also mean players will be physically ready to execute the demands Jans’ coaching will demand, thanks to a comprehensive offseason training program.

What will FCC’s starting midfield resemble?

With the current roster, there are a lot of midfield options and potential tactical shapes.

It’s expected that FCC use a 4-3-3 formation, but how will those three midfielders line up? Will there be one or two defensive midfielders? How many center-attacking mids?

What we can expect, though, is Haris Medunjanin will likely play a deep-lying playmaker role behind the two other midfielders. It’s the reason he was drafted – and subsequently signed – via the Re-Entry Draft. Options can differ from there.

Maybe there’s a partnership between Allan Cruz, the 2019 team MVP, and Frankie Amaya, the former first pick in last year’s MLS SuperDraft, as they ended the season in 2019?

With Leo Bertone’s departure to FC Thun, that also opens another spot to Fatai Alashe, Caleb Stanko and Tommy McCabe. Plus, Nijkamp recently told reporters that new Designated Player Yuya Kubo can also play as a center-attacking mid. He also said the club could sign another DP in that position.

If the backline’s depth is set, who starts?

Nijkamp’s first task this offseason was strengthening the defense. The Orange and Blue allowed 2.2 goals per game last year, which triggered roster changes but not an overhaul. The changes added caliber and depth, meaning at least two players at every position: left back, left center back, right center back and right back.

With the additions, Mathieu Deplagne can focus on playing right back after crisscrossing the backline in 2019. He also has Saad Abdul-Salaam and Zico Bailey competing with him for the starting role.

On the left, Greg Garza enters preseason healthy and has Andrew Gutman behind him as important and talented depth.

The center backs presumably offer the biggest position battle. Maikel van der Werff, Kendall Waston and Nick Hagglund all played important roles as starters in 2019. Now, the three of them – plus newly-acquired Tom Pettersson – are competing for two spots. Who wins? Could there even be a back three?

Who wins the goalkeeper battle?

The No. 1 spot might have the most contention of any position.

Przemysław Tytoń had a strong ending to the 2019 season, but he spent the first half of the year backing up Spencer Richey. The latter missed the last three months of the campaign with a back injury suffered at the very end of July.

Both are healthy and make a strong case to be the starting goalkeeper. Add new signing Bobby Edwards as a piece of quality depth, and the coaching staff will have a difficult decision to make, regardless of who wins the starting role at the outset.  

What will FCC’s frontline resemble?

Brandon Vazquez joins the team after three seasons with Atlanta United FC, and Jans told the media that the forward could be a “real surprise.”

Vazquez will be competing with Darren Mattocks and Rashawn Dally for the No. 9 spot.

On the wings, Kubo is a new addition and will likely start. Joseph-Claude Gyau and Kekuta Manneh will enter preseason competition for the other spot. Manneh is coming off shoulder surgery that ended his 2019 season prematurely. (As a reminder, Gyau will be unavailable for the season opener on March 1 after picking up a red card in the season finale at D.C. United)

There’s also Jimmy McLaughlin, who missed the 2019 season with a torn ACL. He’s a trialist during preseason with the goal of earning a contract. Having not played since October 2018, can he earn a spot? If so, how does that change the club’s depth charts on the wings?