FC Cincinnati have endured an utterly forgettable first three years in Major League Soccer but optimism is as high as ever heading into 2022.
The 2019 expansion team have finished bottom of the overall standings in all three of their MLS campaigns so far, running up some unwanted records for goals conceded and scored, losing streaks, and other metrics.
But with a new head coach and recruitment team, and that beautiful TQL Stadium, there is hope things will turn around soon.
So, here's everything you need to know about FC Cincinnati ahead of the new MLS season, including tactics, key players, and predictions.
How did FC Cincinnati perform in 2021?
As mentioned, FC Cincinnati finished bottom overall last season, just as they did the two years prior. 2021 was particularly painful given the level of investment that winter to bring in the likes of Luciano Acosta, Brenner and Ronald Matarrita.
In fairness, the attacking signings worked to an extent. Though still a low tally, Cincy's 34 goals was a club record in MLS, with Acosta and Brenner scoring 15 of them combined. The former was particularly impressive, ranking high for chances created and successful dribbles despite the lack of quality around him.
But Cincinnati also conceded 74 goals - just one less than the league record which they also hold. So, not only do the Orange and Blue need to find even more goals but they also need to significantly tighten up at the back if they're to stand any chance in 2022.
FC Cincinnati transfer activity
- Gustavo Vallecilla (from SD Aucas, $1m)
- Junior Moreno (from DC United, $425k)
- Dominique Badji (from Colorado Rapids, free transfer)
- John Nelson (from FC Dallas, free transfer)
- Alvas Powell (from Philadelphia Union, free transfer)
- Alec Kann (from Atlanta United, free transfer)
- Nick Markanich (SuperDraft)
- Ian Murphy (SuperDraft)
- Roman Celentano (SuperDraft)
- Raymon Gaddis (Free transfer)
- Joe Gyau (to Degerfors, free transfer)
- Florian Valot (to Miami FC, free transfer)
- Caleb Stanko (to PAS Giannina, free transfer)
- Maikel van der Werff (to PEC Zwolle, free transfer)
- Ben Lundt (to Phoenix Rising, free transfer)
- Jonas Fjeldberg (to Indy Eleven, free transfer)
- Kamohelo Mokotjo (released)
- Przemyslaw Tyton (released)
- Edgar Castillo (released)
- Kyle Scott (released)
- Avionne Flanagan (released)
- Chris Duvall (retired)
Pat Noonan: Tactics and style of play
Given this is Pat Noonan's first time on his own as a head coach, our knowledge of his style of play will be limited until FC Cincinnati actually step onto the field for their first game of the season.
However, from his quotes in the press and friendly notes, we know that he's playing the same diamond formation Jim Curtin used at the Philadelphia Union - Noonan, of course, working as Curtin's assistant there. And we can also infer that Cincy's approach will be to press as a unit to win the ball back and transition quickly.
Given the formation and players at their disposal, FC Cincinnati are highly unlikely to be a possession-heavy team. Their game will be all about disrupting the opposition enough that the likes of Acosta and Brenner have space to do damage in the final third.
FC Cincinnati predicted XI (4-1-2-1-2): Kann; Powell, Hagglund, Vallecilla, Matarrita; Cameron, Kubo, Cruz, Acosta; Brenner, Badji.
Who are FC Cincinnati's key players?
Of FC Cincinnati's 34 goals scored last season, Lucho Acosta was directly involved in 15, scoring seven and assisting eight. He ranked seventh in MLS for chances created (78) and fourth for successful dribbles (86).
To do that for the worst team in the league is outright remarkable and speaks to just how talented Acosta really is.
Once again in 2022, the burden of creation, flair, and, to an extent, goalscoring will land on his shoulders again. It'll be a big ask to repeat those numbers, and he'll need way more help from those around him, but Acosta will remain FC Cincinnati's center of gravity. If he fails, everything else unravels.
The $13m FC Cincinnati spent on Brenner last year remains the fourth-highest fee for an incoming player in MLS history. Was he full value for money in 2021? Eight goals and one assist in 33 appearances suggest not.
But then, Brenner only actually hit 24 shots on target and was largely working on restricted service - not all of the chances Acosta created fell his way, unfortunately.
Regardless, the Brazilian needs to produce more if FC Cincinnati are to compete this season. In fact, you'd go as far as saying Brenner needs to compete on the fringes of the Golden Boot race. He's certainly talented enough to do so, but will he get the chances?
The big elephant in the room at TQL Stadium remains that awful defense. Cincy have made a couple of moves but, so far, they've been limited to the full-back areas and at least on the left, they were already quite strong there.
Perhaps the key will be newly-signed goalkeeper Alec Kann who, during his time with Atlanta United, proved himself among the best No.2s in MLS.
Goalkeeper was a disastrous position for Cincinnati in 2021. Polish stopper Przemyslaw Tyton had the worst xG conceded/actual goals conceded ratio in MLS, allowing 6.38 more than he should have. Dutchman Kenneth Vermeer came in at 4.67, making him the sixth-worst in the league.
Kann, meanwhile, ranked all the way up in eighth with -2.17, albeit on far more limited minutes. But speak to any Atlanta United fan and you'll only get glowing reports about his abilities.
FC Cincinnati 2022 season prediction
FC Cincinnati should be far more defined tactically this season than under the likes of Jaap Stam and Ron Jans, who resorted to damage limitation by bunkering as deep as possible. And in Acosta and Brenner, they have an attacking duo that can mix it with the best in MLS on any given day, without mentioning the likes of Dom Badji and Brandon Vazquez.
But to many, that defense is still unconvincing. Kann will show his quality, but will be buried under the sheer volume of shots he faces. Without more strengthening to the backline, it's hard to see FC Cincinnati doing much better, though they'll do enough to peel themselves off the very floor of MLS.
Prediction: 13th in the Eastern Conference