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Signal Intel: Cincinnati playing with swagger as favored Fire come to town

Chicago’s road to the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals won’t be simple against well-supported underdog

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Columbus Crew SC at FC Cincinnati
Hey, Cincinnati’s into this, folks.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

We hooked up with Bryan Weigel of Cincinnati Soccer Talk in advance of today’s U.S. Open Cup round-of-16 matchup in the Queen City.

Hot Time: FC Cincinnati seems to be the latest iteration of a recent model for MLS hopefuls - an aggressive and engaged ownership group throws down a flag, gets deep into the Wilt playbook to promote engagement, all to create a local soccer economy large enough to turn the heads of MLS investors. In Cincinnati, though, the pump fairly exploded after a little priming. What's gone right in FC Cincinnati's short existence that they're turning out 30,000 for association football?

Cincinnati Soccer Talk: This answer could be a 20-minute response! ;)

Most of the credit at the beginning lays on the shoulders of GM/President Jeff Berding. A former city councilman, Berding went out and sold his vision to the community tirelessly. His pitch, coupled with the redevelopment of the city and influx of young professionals who love soccer helped drive the initial swell of support to the club. "The Bailey," which is a section of approx. 1700 fans in the north end zone made up of an aggregation of supporters groups, set the tone early in the club's first season providing the stadium with a positive and energized atmosphere.

One difference of note with this club is the willingness of supporters to include as many new fans as possible. We have really embraced the notion of supporters bringing new people out to games and growing the support of the club person-to-person. The club has been very accessible to its supporters including starting a supporters council made up of members of SG's and various other season ticket holders that act as a sounding board or an avenue to share ideas or complaints with the club.

FC Cincinnati also receives great coverage from the local media. All 4 major news stations and the Cincinnati Enquirer send staff to matches. At a lower level (USL/NASL) that is unheard of. As an example, only 2 news outlets showed up for Drogba's debut in Phoenix. The MLS bid has also generated much interest, but with over 12,000 season ticket holders, it is more than just casual fans. It's a movement in our city.

*One thing to note. Wednesday's game was not included in the season ticket package, so all tickets were purchased for this match alone. Same as the Columbus match.

HT: How would you describe Cincinnati's tactical approach under Alan Koch? How do you expect them to approach this fixture - will it be bunker & counter, or will they seek to impose themselves on the game?

CST: As you may have seen in the win vs. Columbus, Coach Koch ran out a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation to stifle the attack of Crew SC & counter. The first half was more open with the wingbacks providing the width, but once Djiby (formerly of Lokomotiv Moscow & Molde) scored the go-ahead goal, the back 5 and midfield drew back to lock down the defense. Recently the club has used a 3-4-3 in USL play to some success drawing league leaders Charleston Battery and defeating Preki's Saint Louis FC 2-0. That formation used 1 true striker and tried to play the ball on the ground, vs. the dual-striker/counter setup of last weeks 3-5-2.

I would assume that Koch will probably try to play a more conservative strategy in the first 60 minutes. If FCC can keep it scoreless, then you may see the Fire try to press higher with the game opening up for more counter opportunities. If the Fire can't get on the board early, I think the chances of an FC Cincinnati goal could increase. Let's be realistic as well. lower-division teams have around a 13% chance of pulling an upset, so it is in FCC's best interest to prolong the game and try to concede fewer chances for Chicago.

HT: For Fire supporters, there are several familiar faces on the roster - Austin Berry, former Rookie of the Year, of course, but also Corben Bone (the Texican Xavi!) and camp-cut victim Kadeem Dacres - as well as guys with established resumes in American soccer - Omar Cummings, Andrew Weideman, Kenny Walker, et al. My question is, how often does FC Cincinnati lineup against better talent? Are they week-in, week-out dominating in USL, or is it more balanced than that?

CST: The team that played the first 8 or 9 matches for FC Cincinnati is completely different that what you will see Wednesday. Several new faces that were brought in under former coach John Harkes have not impressed as much and new signings have replaced several of those faces. Couple that with a change in formation and the re-emergence of the Bone/Walker midfield pairing, FC Cincinnati is starting to click as the club is 6-1-2 over their past 9 in all competitions.

Austin Berry has become the leader on the defense and is by most accounts having an all-league season. FC Cincinnati is 3rd in Goals Against Average conceding on average 1 goal a game in league play. I would assume that you will see Bone, but if Koch does choose the 3-5-2, you might see Wiedeman in that spot ahead of Walker and Aodhan Quinn like the Columbus match. New wing backs Justin Hoyte (Arsenal) and Josu (former Barcelona Youth Player) both were on the bench on Saturday so I could see them starting this match. These two have played in high levels of professional competition and could make the back line more difficult to break down. The team is much better than their overall league record. Include the return of several injured players and the new additions, I believe FC Cincinnati will be contending for a USL Championship in the fall.

And my answers to their questions:

CST: Do you expect Bastian Schweinsteiger to play?

HT: You know, this time last week I'd have answered this by roasting up a big batch of 'No,' and then serving it with some 'No Fuckin' Way' sauce, but now ... Basti was pulled early for the first time all season against Orlando City. And Dax is with the USA, so a Juninho/Basti tempo-control double pivot is what we've seen from the Fire when that's been the case this season.

Even with all that, I'm guessing that Basti dresses but doesn't start. The Fire have defensive midfielders stacked up in the depth chart at right back, and it would be a simple matter to start Drew Conner at right back and slide Matt Polster into his natural position in the middle behind a more-attacking Juninho. That duo would present rather more-pedestrian challenges to Cincinnati than the mind-control time-lord machinations of the usual Schweinsteiger/McCarty pairing. So that's my prediction: Basti will be rested unless they've seen something in the film that worries them. I'd expect him to start on the bench. If he starts, take it as a measure of respect - he watched the St. Louis game from Chicago.

CST: Any young prospects that we could expect to see Wednesday?

HT: I certainly hope so! The Fire have some really promising kids. A few of them are playing for Tulsa in USL - you've probably come across Joey Calistri, right? But those guys are cup-tied to Tulsa, so we won't see them Wednesday. You probably will see (barring injury):

- Daniel Johnson, 20, two-footed attacking/wing midfielder with a lot of flair, decent pace, excellent in combination. Georgia kid who spent a few years in the West Ham academy. Was in line for rotation minutes after impressing in substitute appearances, but injuries have set him back a bit

- Djordje Mihalovic, 18, deep-lying playmaker. Homegrown player who was pivotal in the Fire academy's 2016 U18 champions. Has above-average vision and is excellent at releasing runners with one-touch balls into space. Can still occasionally seem overwhelmed by speed of play at the professional level.

- Stefan Cleveland: 23, keeper. Played well against St Louis, to my eye, but I don't feel confident scouting keepers like I do field players.

Plus a smattering of guys who haven't gotten a ton of regular-season minutes because the first XI has been lights-out - Drew Conner, Jonathan Campbell, Juninho, Arturo Alvarez, Patrick Doody.

CST: Who will have to step up in the absences of Dax McCarty?

HT: I'm sure we'll fix it in editing, but I'd like to bounce off the fact that the original question read 'in the absences of Dax McCarty' - because I think, as Red Bulls are finding out, that removing Dax doesn't create an absence, it creates absences. Whose will drives the team ever forward? Who seals off all the countering lanes? Who marks out the trequartista? Who demands? Who calls to account? Dax's ability to get into a really surly head-space yet still be a credible leader on the field is a remarkable emotional balancing act, and no one will fill that role, really. Even Basti, for all his quality, reputation and expectations, is still just too nice a guy to feel comfortable berating dudes on the pitch.

In terms of playing his role in the formation, I'd expect that Polster will slide into the middle. He brings a lot of energy and physicality, but is a clear step below McCarty's quality in possession - not that he's awful, mind. As recently as November he was the best central midfielder on the Fire.