This week is a little different, as Orlando City has a rare Friday night game to shake things up a bit. The Lions head north to Ohio to try to exact some revenge against FC Cincinnati, the team that dealt OCSC its first loss of the season.
Brandon Vazquez continues to make scoring look fairly easy and now has eight tallies to go along with three assists. Are his scoring numbers something that you saw coming or has this been a pleasant surprise for the Cincy faithful?
Geoff Tebbetts: Sometimes it takes a coaching change to unlock the full potential of a player. Two years ago, under Jaap Stam, Vazquez started a handful of games up front with Jurgen Locadia, but FCC didn’t really have a playmaker behind him to thread the needle. Last year, Luciano Acosta was brought in to be that playmaker, but the formation favored a single striker and complimentary wingers, leaving Vazquez on the outside again as a substitute.
Considering the focus has been on Brenner and Acosta, the proof of Vazquez’s ability had been invisible, but when he was used more as a second striker at the end of the 2021 season, it bore fruit. Vazquez started scoring, but the lack of defensive depth meant that his goals didn’t lead to positive results.
Now that the goals are leading to positive results with the team behind him providing more of a defensive presence, yeah, it feels like a pleasant surprise, but it was there. It also helps that assistant coach Dom Kinnear is working more with Vazquez to achieve an attack that maneuvers better in the final third. Vazquez is finding cracks in the box, and crosses that were once missed are now meeting their targets.
The 26 goals FC Cincinnati has conceded is the third worst number in the East, and a goal differential one worse than Charlotte is the only thing keeping FCC out of a playoff spot at the moment. What does this team need to do to tighten things up at the back?
GT: What they need to do is tell everyone to forget about that first awful week against Austin!
The 5-0 away loss to Austin had many pieces missing from the start. Brenner and Alvaro Barreal were both out as they worked back into playing form after an extended off-season. Dom Badji and Alvas Powell both came on after the game had been long decided. The match was basically a disposable mulligan.
Since then, the 4-3-1-2 formation has been used much less and exchanged for a 3-5-2 formation or a 4-3-3 defensive formation. For both, Junior Moreno and newly acquired Obinna Nwobodo have played a solid defending midfield, while John Nelson has been a dependable plug-in at the left back after the team lost Ronald Matarrita for the season. Even rookie goalkeeper Roman Celentano has displayed smarts and technique from the back while Alec Kann has been out.
However, the team is still trying to figure out the composition of its back line. Geoff Cameron and Tyler Blackett are both underachieving this season, and Ian Murphy is still a bit green, even though he’s playing his comfortable center back spot. Nick Hagglund has been surprisingly the most consistent on the back line, but you need more than just one CB having an above-standard season. Chris Albright and Pat Noonan will need to search for another back when the transfer window opens.
After 15 games played Cincy has already matched the number of points it accumulated during the entirety of last year. What do you think the ceiling for this team is this year?
GT: As FC Cincinnati fans, we’ve been down this path before. FCC has had 11, 13, and 14 points at this point over the past three seasons. Eclipsing that point total before the halfway point of the season feels both glorious and harrowing. The floor has to fall under us at some point, right?
However, there is evidence that the team has turned misfortune into short-term success. The -4 goal differential isn’t terrific, but it is still miles better than the -16 differential at this point last year. Players are being mentioned as (dare we say it?) MVP candidates and possible USMNT call-ups. Most importantly, the team is winning at home!
The numbers are not lying. FCC had 10 instances in 2021 where they held a lead but lost points in the end (four draws, six losses), resulting in 26 lost points. The team lost games from goals given up in the 75th minute or later six times. In 2022, FCC has blown leads only twice, resulting in six lost points, and while they have lost twice in the final 15 minutes, they have also won twice in the final 15 minutes. That’s a positive turnaround, no matter how you slice it.
If this team can maintain its point trend compared to other teams, it’ll barely miss the playoffs, and that’s a positive for a city that wants the glory days of the USL to return. But if this team stays healthy, gets two above-average signings in the transfer window, and finds a way to turn on a second or third source of offense, why couldn’t a home playoff game be a possibility? That might be a big ask for a team that struggled last year, but if Vancouver and RSL could ride that wave in 2021, why can’t we?
Are there any injuries, suspensions or other absences that will keep players unavailable for selection? What is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
GT: No suspensions expected here! While FCC does absorb yellow cards, only Nwobodo and Blackett are in danger of getting suspended from their next yellow card.
Moreno and Badji are the only real injury concerns. As of Thursday, Moreno has been doing side work with the squad, while Badji has been ruled out with a leg injury. Matarrita is still the only major injury (ankle) with no certain timetable for return.
Goalkeeper Alec Kann might be back after missing his last eight matches due to a lower body injury. Forward Calvin Harris has been out while awaiting a green card, so he might be out if he’s not back to full training. Acosta and Yuya Kubo had been in COVID protocol recently, but they should be healthy for the game.
Like the last match against Orlando, I’m guessing Noonan plays a 3-5-2 lineup.
Roman Celentano; Nick Hagglund, Geoff Cameron, Ian Murphy; Alvas Powell, Obinna Nwobodo, Luicano Acosta, Yuya Kubo, John Nelson; Brandon Vazquez, Brenner.
As far as predictions are concerned, I do see Orlando getting some measure of revenge. They’re much like FC Cincinnati in the sense that they have performed well on the road, but fallen on hard times at home. If Moreno and Badji were both expected to play, I would call for an FCC win, but I’ll pick a 2-2 draw.
Many thanks to Geoff for the excellent insight into FC Cincinnati. Vamos Orlando!