2020 Position Breakdown: Defenders

Note: This story originally ran in February, but it’s been updated ahead of FC Cincinnati’s participation in the MLS is Back Tournament. A different position group will be highlighted daily, beginning with the goalkeepers. Today’s edition highlights the backline.

Entering the offseason, GM Gerard Nijkamp said it was important to revamp the roster by building from the back. During interviews last season, he said the approach was equivalent to building a strong foundation before constructing the rest of the house.

A quick glance at the roster’s revamped backline shows exactly what Nijkamp meant.

FC Cincinnati added three defenders ahead of 2020 and have a position group full of quality and depth at every position.

While this group will ultimately be judged off goals conceded and clean sheets, the position is noticeably stronger than FCC’s setup in 2019.

Kendall Waston

No. 2

Age: 32

Position: center back

Waston was Cincinnati’s captain in 2019 and provides size, strength and reliability.

At 6-foot-5, he’s the team’s tallest defender and is dynamic in front of both goals. While the focus is on defensive duties, he scored FCC’s first MLS goal at Nippert Stadium off a header last March and scored off a quick restart in Cincinnati’s final preseason friendly this past Friday.

Update: Waston wore the captain’s armband in the first two regular season matches, and he’ll be a key player to watch for FCC in the MLS is Back Tournament.

Already a proven leader and intelligent player, he’s a commanding presence on the backline. Now that FCC hired head coach Jaap Stam – one of the most fearsome defenders ever – how will that reshape the backline? Will Waston have a similar role, or will the new coach bring a new identity? Based on interviews, the Costa Rica international sounds excited to unveil what the club has been implementing.

Tom Pettersson

No. 3

Age: 30

Position: center back

The Swede awaits his first MLS season having played exclusively in Europe in his career so far.

While he was limited during the preseason with a groin injury, he played the last 20 minutes of the club’s final friendly last Friday at IMG Academy. When healthy, Pettersson is a left-footed center back who’s comfortable on the ball and can help the team build from the back, while also preventing goal-scoring opportunities for opponents.

Update: Pettersson didn't play in the two opening matches as he recovered from an injury. Now healthy, what impact will he make on the backline? Furthermore, will a healthy Pettersson mean changes to the center back pairing, or what about a formation change?

Greg Garza

No. 4

Age: 28

Position: left back

Garza said his 2019 was like a “Ferris wheel” of good and bad moments. Injured from the start of preseason, he spent the majority of the year in and out of lineups with injuries. However, he ended the year on a positive note by starting six of the last seven games.

But after a healthy 2020 preseason, he’s ready to show his capabilities and why he’s a consistent candidate for a U.S. Men’s National Team callup. When he’s healthy, Garza is one of FCC’s most exciting players to watch.

Update: Garza started the first two matches and will compete with Andrew Gutman to maintain that role. After the 2019 "Ferris wheel," hopefully the tournament jumpstarts a healthy, impressive campaign for Garza. 

Saad Abdul-Salaam

No. 12

Age: 28

Positions: right back, center back

The Ohio native joins FCC after winning the 2019 MLS Cup with Seattle Sounders FC.

Throughout preseason, Abdul-Salaam showed his versatility as both a right back and someone who can play as a center back.

The fullback awaits his fourth season with as many clubs, but he brings impressive MLS experience and dependability to a backline that needed both last season.

Update: Ignoring preseason, Abdul-Salaam hasn't appeared for the Orange and Blue yet, but could play a vital role in Orlando. He's a dynamic player who can play across the backline, which could be crucial as FCC play three games in just 12 days – after four months without a match.

Nick Hagglund

No. 14

Age: 27

Position: center back

The first Cincinnati native on FCC’s MLS roster is back for his second season with the club. Throughout 2019, Hagglund provided leadership and stability to the backline. Expect more of that in 2020 for a player who’s adjusted well to the club’s playing style and philosophy.

Since the team changed playing identities last May, Hagglund has looked better and better on the ball.

Update: Hagglund hasn't made a matchday squad yet in 2020, but, similar to Abdul-Salaam, could play an important role as FCC compete during group play. 

Zico Bailey

No. 16

Age: 19

Position: right back

Bailey is the second youngest player on the team after Frankie Amaya, but arrives with years of professional experience.

He started in the LA Galaxy Academy and is a Homegrown Player, despite joining FCC from FC Helsingör from Denmark.

During Monday’s FCC Media Day, Nijkamp mentioned adding players who can provide short-term and long-term quality on the roster. When it comes to Bailey, he’s a project who can quickly develop into a talented MLS fullback.

Throughout preseason, his ability and comfort grew steadily. That should continue during the 2020 regular season.

Update: Bailey hasn't made a matchday squad yet, but he had a promising preseason and is part of FCC's long-term growth.

Mathieu Deplagne

No. 17

Age: 28

Position: right back

Deplagne played in 33 of FCC's 34 games last year, accumulating more minutes than any other player. At times, that also meant playing across the backline. 

In 2020, he'll likely stick to right back, his natural position and where he excelled for the club last year. The Frenchman offers quality in both attacking and defending, and should be an impact player for the Orange and Blue.

Update: After playing in nearly every game he was available last year, Deplagne featured in both of FCC's opening games in 2020 and delivered solid performances. He also played with two different right wings, so it'll be interesting to see which partnerships Stam pairs the fullback with in Orlando. 

Maikel van der Werff

No. 23

Age: 31

Position: center back

The Dutchman just spent his first offseason with the Orange and Blue after joining the team last July as a free agent.

Van der Werff brought instant improvement to the backline and is hoping he can provide the same this year – especially with a full offseason.

He was Nijkamp’s first signing and personifies the philosophy of the team building from the back in possession. Additionally, he provides leadership and wore the captain’s armband during the club’s first preseason game in Tucson, Arizona.

Update: Van der Werff started both regular season games in March and is familiar with Stam from when the Dutchmen worked together at PEC Zwolle. Since he arrived, van der Werff has basically been a guaranteed starter. Will that continue at the MLS is Back Tournament?

Andrew Gutman

No. 96

Age: 23

Position: left back

Another mid-season acquisition, Gutman is on loan from Scottish giants Celtic FC and is an aggressive left back who can attack as well as he defends.

Gutman and Garza legitimately provide the best left back depth in MLS. Consider that a luxury for the club, but a headache for interim head coach Yoann Damet when he selects starting lineups.

Similar to Garza, Gutman is also in contention to earn a USMNT callup. As evidenced in 2019 and preseason 2020, he can also spot fill-in at left midfield, center back and center midfield, if necessary, as well.

Update: A pandemic suspending the season is certainly not how Gutman expected his second season to unfold. But with two appearances in as many matches – as a substitute – to open the season, that role will likely continue in Orlando. Again, with little rest between games, it wouldn't be surprised if he makes his first start of the season in the coming weeks.

Hassan Ndam

No. 47

Age: 21

Position: center back

Ndam is on loan with The Miami FC in the USL Championship. After being selected fifth in the 2018 MLS Expansion Draft, the Cameroonian center back went on loan to USL Championship side Charlotte Independence in 2019, but ended up training the last part of the season with FCC.

Update: Last week, the USL Championship announced it'll resume play on July 11. Here's a guide to how that will impact the center back.