Cincinnati away is upon us for the first time.
To prepare for the game, I caught up with Bill Wolf of Cincinnati Soccer Talk to ask him about how FC Cincinnati has fared so well in their first MLS campaign and what he’s expecting from the orange and blue in their first meeting against the Philadelphia Union.
There were a lot of question marks - as there are with any expansion team - going into the season in terms of what the team would look like and how they would compete in year one. It appears as though things have gone pretty well so far with two straight wins and a 2-1-1 record four games in. How have things been from your perspective? Is the team meeting or exceeding expectations so far?
This team has exceeded expectations so far. Last year in the USL, we stacked our team with top players from D2. We went into the season with very high expectations and the team struggled. In the end, the team won the regular season championship (the USL supporters shield) well above any other team, but we learned that great players don’t win games. Great teams do, and though great players have moments of brilliance that can change a game, it requires the whole team to buy into a system and to work hard for each other on the pitch. Getting all of our players on board took longer than most of us expected last year. This year, that connection and understanding has come much quicker. Perhaps this is because we brought up 11 players from last year who already knew Coach Koch and his vision. Perhaps we have players with higher soccer IQs. Probably a little of both.
Who have the difference makers been for the team so far this season?
That’s been the beautiful thing. We have scored seven goals so far and all seven have come from different players. At one point, people were questioning where Cincinnati’s goal were going to come from and the answer so far has been from everywhere. For me though, the two players who have impressed me and who I think have become the key pieces of this teams success have been Ulloa and Bertone. Against Seattle it was obvious they were not on the same page. Each game they have formed a stronger bond and an understanding. Ulloa dropping back to support the defense when Bertone travels forward. Bertone sliding over to cover a wingback caught high on a counter. They are watching the game and putting themselves into key positions but also are more aware of each other and are working as a strong central pairing. They are winning challenges centrally and allow Cincinnati to spring its wings forward into dangerous positions.
Unlike Philadelphia, where the team started from scratch in year one, Cincinnati had time to build momentum in USL. What’s the transition been like? Does it feel different now that the team is in MLS versus the last two years playing in USL?
Every organization and supporter culture will try things that don’t work. Some of these attempts are cringe worthy when you see them. To a large degree, USL gave us three years to try things and bury our worst ideas and there were some really bad ideas..... the great thing is that now, as a soccer culture, Cincinnati has three years under its belt. We have some traditions and we’ve found things that work, so we enter MLS ready to put on a show. As a fan, we’re in the same stadium, drinking at the same bars and pregaming with the same friends. Not to temper the excitement of getting into MLS, but at some level, gameday was business as usual for our opener. Obviously we aren’t going to sit still though. There are great teams in MLS with crowds and chants and tifos and their own traditions so though we come in somewhat prepared, we also can’t help but be a little humbled by our new siblings and we’re looking to continue to grow and prove we deserve to be on this stage.
I think what is happening on the pitch is a bit different. There is no doubt that the level of soccer has leaped. USL was a great home for us for three years, but MLS is another level and it is incredibly exciting to see the highest level of soccer in America in our home town. I know as a fan watching the game, the clock seems to run faster in MLS. Games go by a lot quicker anyway...
The turf at Nippert Stadium has been a topic of conversation. What’s your take on the surface? Do you see it as something that gives FC Cincinnati a home field advantage?
Interesting question. So the surface is artificial of course. We share the stadium with the University of Cincinnati football team, so when we get into the fall there will be some times when they paint all those funny lines on the turf. We do use a washable paint so the lines are removed for our matches thankfully. We actually had cutouts last year for the end zones that they laid in for American football games, but that created seams which were not ideal. We also widened the two years ago to bring the dimensions of the surface up to standards. Coming into MLS, our ownership completely replaced the pitch with a brand new surface. No cut outs and the highest quality artificial surface available. In theory that sounds great, except that brand new surfaces need time to settle and flatten so for sure against Portland, the ball took some interesting bounces at times. I think everyone will find that by summer the surface will have settled and stretched a bit and will be much more consistent.
I’m sure it provides us a bit of an advantage. Obviously The Union will have very little time on the surface to calibrate. To be honest though, Cincinnati has not spent much time on it either. All training is done in Milford at the Mercy Health Training Grounds. Aside from the previous home match, the surface is new to us as well. Thankfully, this is a temporary situation. In two years when we open our new stadium, it will absolutely be a grass surface.
If FC Cincinnati was on an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, what would the plot line be?
Oh probably a variation on the classic Thanksgiving episode.....
Instead of turkeys we’d have flying pigs.
We have statues of pigs with wings all over the city and a marathon named the Flying Pig, and nobody thought Cincinnati would ever be an MLS expansion team. First call from Berding to Garber was probably answered “call back when pigs fly.”
What’s your projected starting XI and score prediction for Saturday?
Starting XI is tough. Adi is listed as questionable. I’ll assume he isn’t ready. We had 4 other starter level players out on international callup so we’ll have to see what their level of fatigue is or if they picked up a knock or anything. I’m going to assume they are ready to compete. To complicate things, several players last week stepped in and presented strong arguments for getting a starting spot.
I’m thinking something like this.
We usually call the lineup a 4-2-3-1, but if you watch how Manneh lines up, he is so high, he acts like a second striker to me. I think Mattocks will step in for Adi. He earned that in the Portland game when Adi was injured and came off. He was also on the bench for Jamaica against Costa Rica so we should be fit. This lineup leaves two players Deplagne and Cruz who could both 100 percent be starters, but I had to choose.
I’m going to predict a 2-1 victory for FCC. Both teams are coming in confident off of wins but the crowd will factor in. We can’t keep a clean sheet every game and Accam is hot right now.
Whatever the result, it’s going to be an exciting game I’m sure. I hope a good number of fans get a chance to travel in from Philadelphia for the game. Come find me before the game and say “Hi,” I should be at Top Cats. Hit me up on Twitter if you have any questions.