D.C. United might have been better off playing FC Cincinnati a few weeks ago. The expansion side is still struggling under interim boss Yoann Damet (mostly due to a roster that simply isn’t built for MLS), but they have picked up two wins in a row. Sure, those wins were against a listing Houston side and the utterly erratic Chicago Fire, but wins are wins, and it’s not like United can be too judgmental on that front right now. Cincy is starting to figure some things out, and this game is going to be tougher than it looks on paper as a result.
Here’s what United can expect at Nippert Stadium tonight:
Goalkeeper: Spencer Richey
Richey, a late-round draft pick who has shuttled between USL and MLS in his short career, was not supposed to be the starter. Przemysław Tytoń, a veteran with 14 caps for Poland and over 100 combined starts in the top flights of the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain, was a big acquisition for this team.
Richey beat him for the job straight up, though. That’s not to say Tytoń has met expectations (he has not, at all), but Richey has done his part to become a pretty locked-in starter. He might not be the best organizer, and he hasn’t made too many particularly big saves in key moments, but Cincinnati’s 2.25 goals against per game aren’t really about their goalkeeping situation.
Right back: Alvas Powell, most likely
Powell has not had a good season by any standard, but he returned from the Gold Cup and went into the starting lineup again. However, there has been a revolving door here: since the start of June, 5 different players have started at right back for Damet. Powell could end up being dropped if Justin Hoyte is moved out of the middle to make way for Nick Hagglund (which, given how much United has depended on set pieces for goals this year, isn’t entirely off the table).
Anyway, Powell brings a ton of speed, and has played well against United in the past, but he has been terribly mistake-prone in 2019.
Center back: probably Justin Hoyte
Hoyte, who was once on Arsenal’s books, is not really a center back, but Damet dropped Hagglund to the bench last week and got a road win. When you’ve been as bad as Cincinnati has been and then finally win a game, you tend to avoid changing your lineup that much. As such, Hoyte probably has the edge here.
Center back: Kendall Waston
Waston has been pretty much what you’d expect from him: an emotional leader, good in the air, brave, etc. This season has underlined some limitations: he’s not an organizer, and his lateral mobility is a vulnerability. United needs to make sure this game is about those facets of his game, and they need to be sure he’s marked well from all set pieces.
Left back: Mathieu Deplagne
Greg Garza was another high-profile Cincinnati signing that hasn’t panned out, this time due to persistent injuries (which, given Garza’s history...not exactly shocking). Deplagne is a veteran of Ligue 1, and is probably one of the two foreign acquisitions Cincy made for 2019 that has actually worked out to some extent. Still, he’s a right back who can play center back...who has had to play left back nearly all year long.
Deplagne is a solid all-around player. He’s not a major attacking force (probably because he’s not playing on his preferred side), but he doesn’t turn the ball over and generally avoids making the sort of individual errors that have otherwise plagued this entire team this year.
Defensive midfield: Caleb Stanko, perhaps?
Cincinnati has a comically high number of MLS role player-level defensive midfielders, and right now Stanko appears to have the edge on the rest of the pack. His season has been odd: not too many major problems, but he’s a low usage-rate guy on a team that needs someone to influence games with energy.
This could easily end up being Allan Cruz (in his natural position, which Cincy has largely resisted playing him in), or Victor Ulloa, or Eric Alexander. In the case of the latter two, they’d play the no. 8, and Leonardo Bertone would drop deep as the no. 6.
Under Damet, Cincinnati has had a very clear tendency for one central midfielder to receive the ball from the defense, making them very predictable when they build up. Harassing Stanko in these moments is probably a good way to keep the game in their half.
Defensive midfield: Leonardo Bertone
Bertone is in the Deplagne class of an international signing that actually worked. The Swiss central midfielder has been FCC’s best player this season, and is the team leader in pass attempts per game for a reason: he’s the guy every other player on the team trusts the most on the ball.
Bertone isn’t a special, Best 11 caliber talent, but he’s reliable, smart, and gets himself into the attack with some frequency. United’s gameplan might well be built around cutting him out of the game and making Cincinnati’s more erratic players carry the workload.
Right wing: Emmanuel Ledesma
Ledesma is a USL holdover that also happens to be one of Cincinnati’s only genuine creative players. How they built their roster like this is a mystery. Anyway, the Argentine is really more of a second forward/attacking midfielder, but in Damet’s system, he’s on the wing in part to minimize the risk of giveaways in the middle of the field.
Ledesma’s recent play indicates a real emphasis on his ability to switch the field or play early balls over the top. He’s not looking to complete a high percentage of passes; rather, it’s about completing the one pass that results in a big scoring chance.
Attacking midfield: Allan Cruz or Kekuta Manneh
Damet has used both of these players here, and there’s a balance he’s trying to strike. Manneh is the major attacking threat, but he’s also less defensively reliable than Cruz. On that side of the ball, the cautious thing to do is to play Cruz in the middle. However, in instances where a team might be vulnerable right up the gut, there’s a justification for switching them up.
Cruz is a natural holding midfielder, but he’s shown some off-the-ball savvy and works very hard no matter where he plays. Manneh, if he’s here, will play this role as more of a second forward than in the style of a typical playmaker. In either case, there’s not a lot of positional freedom to roam, because the system right now is about structural solidity and minimizing risk.
Left wing: Kekuta Manneh or Allan Cruz
Manneh out on the left is the target of a lot of those Ledesma cross-field balls, and he’s the one true game-breaking player on this FCC team. He hasn’t quite developed as everyone initially hoped (his move to Pachuca was a bust, and he didn’t do much better at St. Gallen), but he’s still lightning quick and shows flashes of the player he threatened to become in Vancouver.
If this is Cruz, look for him to play deeper for the most part, and to make some dangerous late-arriving runs in the box.
Striker: Who knows!
The starter of late has been Rashawn Dally, the 49th overall pick in this year’s draft. He was supposed to spend the season on loan, but with Darren Mattocks away on Gold Cup duty (and often out of favor for no good reason under Alan Koch’s tenure) and Fanendo Adi not fully fit, the rookie got the start. He’s mostly been focused on his defensive duties, and his work rate has been good on that front.
The issue is that he just hasn’t been much of a goal threat, with few shot attempts in remotely dangerous spots. That’s why our graphic has Mattocks (who missed their last two games attending to a family matter in Jamaica) ahead of him. Well, that and Mattocks is probably itching to prove United should have kept him in the lineup last year.
Adi might be closer to being able to play more than 20-30 minutes, so we could see him start as well. He scored a well-taken goal last week, but that was his first goal for Cincinnati, and just his fourth MLS goal in two full calendar years. Adi can still finish, for sure, but his mobility appears to be badly in decline.
Now that Damet has Mattocks back from Jamaica, the cupboard isn’t so bare. Previously, his one real card to play was to bring Adi in for Dally, losing mobility and defensive work rate in exchange for someone who has scored some goals in MLS. There’s also the option of sending in one of the many defensive midfielders to freshen things up (but not really actually change the dynamic of the game at all), and, uh, Corben Bone?
People have been critical of FCC’s roster construction for a reason. This is why: nowhere near enough players who can actually make a difference in games.
Last week, Damet apparently told broadcasters that his plan was to not be stuck in a bunker for so much of their game against Chicago. He wasn’t advocating for a high press, but did want to move his lines up for at least some of the game.
Chicago then handed them a goal with some rec league defending within the 1st minute, and Cincinnati did what any team in last place up 1-0 away would tend to do: they dropped into a bunker.
I bring this up because that’s probably what will pass for a variation today. In front of a home crowd, and (for Pete’s sake, please) not facing a team that will concede very early, Damet will probably draw his line of contention higher up the field at kickoff. That’s still more of a mid-block at best, but for Cincinnati it’s a shift worth noting. If United starts dominating play, you can be sure this line will be moved back in a hurry.
There are a few other small tweaks that we might see. Damet has occasionally set up for phases of games in a 4141 (with a Martin Rennie-esque set-up with an anchor man underneath two defense-first no. 8s), or drawn his wingers back into a 4411. The most significant one is probably the positioning of Cruz and Manneh, as Manneh is the team’s biggest attacking threat at this point.