Monday, March 4, 2019

Seattle Sounders 4-1 FC Cincinnati: 14 Glorious Minutes

Wait for it....
For starters, it was a complicated night, lots of distractions, condensed perspectives, etc. Still, Alvas Powell’s no-hope, screamer at 24th minute had a portentous vibe to it, a sense of, if we’re gonna pad this score, it has to be now. It was a one hell of a death rattle.

FC Cincinnati’s first-ever game in Major League Soccer ended…not ideally, with a 1-4 loss to the Seattle Sounders in Seattle (just the second time I’ve seen FC Cincy loose, btw). I had the good fortune to watch the game live, to see people walking around Seattle’s CenturyLink field in shiny, new FC Cincinnati gear, blue, orange, and giddy smiles all around. It was a fine night for the game too, brisk and clear, so I can recommend everything about the experience that wasn’t the curry lamb meat pie. To get caveats out of the way, I watched from the end-line, one of the more complicated viewing perspectives. I supplemented the live experience last night via the condensed game on a tiny screen (after the plan for a slightly less tiny screen fell through), these are my notes, submitted this 3rd day, March, 2019, showered less than I should be, but also extraordinarily comfortable…

First, let us pause to appreciate…no, contemplate the beauty of Leanardo Bertone’s goal, the first scored by FC Cincinnati in their Major League Soccer history. It teed up like an over-ripe melon that your kinder pitching machines give you on the “Slow/Improve My Mood” setting. Bertone launched one of those barely-rotating cannonballs into the lower (Stefan Frei’s) right of the goal and, obviously, holy shit, yes, good start. That’s a goal any player fantasizes about hitting and, guys(!!), that’s FC Cincinnati’s first-ever goal. (I once caught a 12-inch bass, which means I have some sense of what Bertone feels right now…if not, he should call me to download.) Notably, however, that bright, shining moment came after a spell of Seattle pressure. More Seattle pressure followed on the other side of Cincinnati’s one (real) moment of glory (no offense) too…surely, you can see where this is going. Still, it was possible to dream for 14 glorious minutes....

Sure, FC Cincy scored first, but it took two goals over a rough space of five minutes to end this game as a contest. I’ll go deeper on the first goal later, but when Morris rushed into the vertical gap on the (Cincy’s) left of the defense and behind the midfield, and pinged the game-winner off the foot (I think) of a Cincinnati defender, the game looked…well, over. 60+ minutes of one-way traffic more confirmed that, yes, FC Cincinnati’s first game in MLS would go into the history books, but there would be no happy ending. (Bob Kraft. Sorry! That’s all I’m gonna say!).

For what it’s worth, I do feel better about FC Cincinnati after watching the condensed highlights (the 20-minute stuff, not those five-minute scraps, hatefully fed as punishment to those unwilling to download the MLS App). The beginnings of an approach to goal showed up – most of them not involving Eric Alexander, but definitely involving Roland “Huzzah” Lamah. It’s not impossible, but it’ll take a village and, holy shit, I hope the ringers from that village brought their cleats (or maybe Kenny Saief will fix everything?). Things get kinda ugly from there. To back to something higher up the post, maybe Powell took that shot on the understanding that things would not get better, at least not today. So, what the hell, right? Try to steal something.

Moving on to nuts and bolts, I wasn’t sure how FC Cincinnati lined up (here’s the official line), but you could forgive someone for reading a 3-5-2 based on the goals allowed over those five decisive minutes. This actually gets at why I get weird when people talk about formations. If you watch the replay on Seattle’s equalizing goal, and you will see an almost Platonic version of firm lines, a team collapsed into two banks of fou…ah, there’s the issue. Nicolas Lodeiro slipped into the vacant space on the (Cincinnati’s) right of a temporary three-man back-line. Seattle attacked the same spot later, only from around the outside, but the ball rolled through the same damn lane for Jordan Morris to run onto and score his first, and Seattle’s winner. It’s fairly easy to blame the guy who absented himself from the four-man backline laid down on the starting sheet – that’d be Powell – but don’t you also assume that the same game-plan sees Powell as a player that the team wants to get forward to give width to the attack? Regardless of those two specific moments and how Powell should handle them (better, obviously, especially when the defense is pinned back), that space will open up now and again so long as FC Cincy wants to use an overlapping fullback, and that requires some horizontal adjustment to the backline, amirite? (That said, to close out Powell, there was a moment inside the first five minutes when Lodeiro bolted inside Powell to meet a cross; Cincinnati fans will become very, sickening familiar such moments).

I won’t argue that FC Cincinnati’s defense got horribly exposed Saturday. It gave up a collective four goals, sure, and could have given up more, the stats were hideous, and so on, but I’m choosing to use that to take comfort from the fact that it wasn't worse. The league’s newest (and it shows) team losing to one of MLS’s best over the past five years hardly strikes as cause to panic - or a fresh cause, at the very least. And it’s not like Seattle’s third goal was a crime – Cincinnati got hit on the counter, but getting back into a game naturally entails risk (same, uh, side of the defense, tho) – and their fourth goal was more or less a bowl of who-gives-a-shit gravy. Lodeiro is regarded as a league-elite attacking player, and Victor Rodriquez has come off as comically under-rated since he arrived, and now they’ve got Morris sprinting in front of them alongside Raul Ruidiaz. The boring reality is that FC Cincinnati lost to a good team, and in said good team’s house. What the hell else was supposed to happen?

On a brighter level, I do think I’m starting to see the outlines of how the whole thing might work – i.e., FC Cincinnati as a competent unit. Bertone looks comfortable floating – e.g., like Davy Arnaud, like someone who CAN pass and combine, but whose attacking role could involve those tricky third runs, and the odd violent clean-up of any shit that gets loose near the area. I was also happy to see Corben Bone start, if only because it showed some sense that Alan Koch & Co. don’t think they can live on long balls into space for Darren Mattocks or Fanendo Adi holding off the combined weight of the opposing defense with his back to goal. Bone may not be the final answer for that role, but, for now, I’ll take recognition that the role is needed. So long as FC Cincinnati has some scheme better than lobbing long balls from inside a bunker built of two banks of four (four, dammit!), I’m happy. I also expect it’ll take time to perfect the blend of personnel and positioning to make it work. 

Look, I expected nothing out of this game beyond an assessment of the carnage and, on that scale, I call this a heavily-mitigated success. No one in orange and blue gave up, they created a chance (two?) late enough in the game to keep both chin and spirits up. The coaching staff is in a tricky position at the moment, in that they need to manage the tension between letting a first team gel, while also casting a grotesquely cold, calculating eye toward things that aren’t working. No road map tells them when to pull the plug on this or that player or concept, and they’ve got thousands staring over their shoulders and telling them where to go. That’s hardly an enviable position, even if they signed up for it. FC Cincinnati will face challenges this season that will give them a little more space to think than Seattle did. They won’t get that next weekend, certainly (Atlanta away…oh, sweet baby Jesus), and maybe not the weekend after, but they’ll catch a break and their breath when they face some of the league’s weaker teams. At that point, FC Cincy fans should have a clearer sense of where their team stands in the 2019 hierarchy.

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