Club Spotlight: FC Cincinnati
By this point, if you’re a member of the US Soccer community and have not heard yet about FC Cincinnati, you must have been sleeping under a rock for the last several months. To provide a short background, the USL expansion club is taking the league by storm. They have already set the USL regular season attendance record… twice! They have only played four home games! The atmosphere at Nippert Stadium is unlike anything we have ever seen in the USL before and already rivals that of some of the best in MLS. Carl Lindner III, a co-CEO at American Financial Group, leads the young club’s ownership group. Headlines were made when he announced that John Harkes, an American soccer legend, would be the first ever coach of Cincinnati’s team. Having such a big name like Harkes leading the franchise brought immediate publicity.
A lot has been made of FC Cincinnati’s success off the field up to this point and deservedly so. We are going to take a bit of a different approach and talk about the success that they are having on the pitch. FC Cincinnati currently holds a 5-2-2 record which is a phenomenal start considering it is a brand new group of guys who have never played together before.
If you have not yet watched an FC Cincinnati game you are missing out. To see a team that is not in the MLS playing the way they do shows just how far soccer in this country has come. Harkes has his boys playing in a very consistent way. They have lined up in 4-3-3 in just about every match they have played up to this point. His preferred starting XI is typically what you see below.
Let’s start in the back. Mitch Hildebrandt has played every minute of the USL season so far in goal for the men in orange. From early on he has shown that he is a capable keeper making several important saves. Hildebrandt’s double save against Toronto FC II stands out as his shining moment so far. It earned him a place in Sportscenter’s Top Ten Plays and if you have not yet seen it, you’re missing out.
The backline of FC Cincinnati has been a bit of a mixed bag through their first 9 matches managing just one shutout. Some blame obviously needs to be placed on the defenders for this, but much of it also has to do with the way the team attacks. The outside backs, Polak and McMahon, provide a lot of width on the pitch for the midfielders to operate and for the wingers to pinch in and overload the midfield. This is going to cause problems defensively when the ball is turned over in dangerous positions. Delbridge, Berry, and Tomaselli become the three deepest players for Cincinnati as they advance the ball higher and higher up the field.
Ross Tomaselli’s role is to drop in between the central defenders to act as an easy option during the build up and give Walker and Bone some room to operate. Tomaselli is not as clean on the ball as Bone and does not have the range of passing that Walker does, but he is an absolute workhorse in the midfield and allows for his fellow central midfielders to build the game.
Kenny Walker is the guy that FC Cincinnati really looks for to bring other players into the game. For an extremely talented player like he is and former LA Galaxy man, he was rather disappointing throughout the first few games. He has since gotten more comfortable with the team and now looks like the player “The Bailey” was expecting to lead this team. Harkes gives Walker free reign in the midfield, looking for any way to get Kenny on the ball. Often times, he drops deep into the midfield to collect balls off the back line. Corben Bone feeds off of Walker’s movements and regularly pushes higher just underneath Okoli. When this movement occurs, FC Cincinnati looks as though they are playing a 4-2-3-1 rather than a 4-3-3. These are the kind of natural movements that you see in top clubs. Good players feed off of one another’s movements and make formations melt in a sense. This fluidity and constant movement we see with FC Cincinnati is a big part of why they are so fun to watch.
McLaughlin, Okoli, and Weideman are really fun to watch work together in the attack. Harkes likes for McLaughlin to be the guy who pinches in from the wing to help overload the midfield and create difficult decisions for the opposition’s outside backs. When he picks it up in the middle of the field he is normally looking forward to combine with Okoli or Bone, we saw this in his goal against Pittsburgh. When he is able to get the ball on the left wing, he has the confidence to run directly at people and see what he can make happen. Weideman’s style is a bit different. He is not on the ball as much as McLaughlin but he is particularly clever with his movements off the ball. Weideman is that guy who constantly puts himself in dangerous spots. He might be the best pure finisher the team has. He has not had many opportunities to score, but he has taken advantage of his chances. Sean Okoli has everything that you look forward in a lone striker. Athletically, he is an absolute beast with great size that allows him to hold the ball up during the Cincinnati’s build up and speed that makes him a constant threat in behind. The goal he scored in their home opener against Charlotte was world class and showed the kind of technical ability that he has to match his physicality. Okoli is going to be creating headaches for USL defenses all season long. Between the three attacking players that FC Cincinnati has, they can get goals in just about every way imaginable.
A lot of focus was placed on FC Cincinnati’s typical starting XI. However, the club has several other players under contract for 2016 that will surely make large contributions. Former MLS All-Star and Jamaican international, Omar Cummings headlines that list. Cummings does not have the blazing speed he once had, but he is still a formidable striker. After battling with injury for all of preseason, Harkes is starting to slowly implement him into the team and he should bring fantastic forward depth as the season goes on. Antoine Hoppenot is another name that MLS fans will be familiar with. A member of the Philadelphia Union for 4 seasons, he quickly became a fan favorite in Philly as a super sub. His energy and speed will give FC Cincinnati plenty of depth given his ability to play anywhere in the front three. He too has been fighting with injury this season and FC Cincinnati fans should expect to see a lot more of Hoppenot in the coming months. Derek Luke is a guy that Harkes has shown a lot of faith in up to this point. He has featured in almost every game off of the bench and played in many different roles. Left back, right back, and left-winger are all spots that he has already played early on in his professional career. A real team guy, coaches love to have his kind of versatile player at their dispense.
FC Cincinnati is taking the USL by storm. They have been receiving a lot of early comparisons to Orlando City back in their early USL days. Orlando City of course showed the country that if a club has the right infrastructure, they could achieve MLS dreams. The ownership group of FC Cincinnati has made it no secret that bringing MLS to their city is the ultimate goal. After the start that they are off to, MLS is taking notice.