FreeKicks: Stam seeks improvement, players adjust schedules, injury updates and more

File photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati coach Jaap Stam has been tempering expectations for the MLS is Back Tournament with the reminder of how little time he’s had with the team, but he still has a picture of success in mind.

The Orange and Blue are set to play Atlanta at 9 a.m. Thursday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Kissimmee, and they need at least a draw to remain in contention for one of the top two spots in Group E after dropping a 4-0 loss to Columbus Crew in their tournament opener. A minus-four goal differential makes a wild card spot difficult to obtain, and FCC likely needs at least four points from the last two games.

Stam, who on Thursday will have been with the team exactly one month, continues to describe these early games as his preseason, as he is still getting a feel for the players and what they can do and players are still adjusting to his system. However, he also knows the importance of getting results – not just because group games count toward the regular-season standings.

“Success for myself is of course that we are out performing, that we are making steps every game and hopefully to get a result as well because everybody knows in sports when you have a result that gives the confidence boost and everybody feels a lot happier in what we’re doing and things will develop even quicker when you’re having success,” Stam said. “So, that’s a thing for us to work on and then to work on a team process in the way of playing and what we need to improve, but also trying to get that success so that makes things a lot easier to eventually go to where we want to go.”

FCC played well for the first 20 minutes Saturday and had chances to score first but conceded on a free kick in the 27th minute and then let down to allow another goal three minutes later and an early second-second half strike. The downward spiral felt all too familiar for a team that finished as the worst team in the league in 2019.

Stam said that’s part of what he has to fight now, as well. This team hasn’t experienced enough successes to maintain confidence when things are going well in a match and suddenly don’t.

“When you’ve got like a long spell of not having results that confidence is lacking, and it’s difficult to come out of it,” Stam said. “The thing for us and for myself and with the coaching staff is to be able to stay positive, and it’s been 20-25 minutes in the first game that we’ve done things well, that they’ve improved and they need to stick to that as well and get confidence from that as well and because in soccer and I think in every sport, things can change, you know, very quick. If you can play well and you can start doing well, you can have that result in a game or you can score before the opposition is doing. Because we had the opportunities to score in the beginning against Columbus as well and if you do take these opportunities, then the feeling with the players is totally different. So we need to we need to build on that.”

Rollercoaster schedule brings another challenge…

A weather delay Saturday backed up FCC’s kickoff to 11:20 p.m., and now in a short turnaround to Game 2, the team is preparing to flop to a 9 a.m. start Thursday. Stam said the team didn’t get back to the hotel until 2 a.m. after the first game and adjusting back to a morning routine has been challenging.

“A lot of players and even coaches after a game like that, you can’t sleep or you find it hard to sleep, so before you go to sleep it’s 5, 5:30 in the morning, and then you need to go out, you need to have breakfast, you need to have training, talking about the game,” Stam said. “Before you get adjusted from that, before you’re recovered very well, it takes you almost two days, and now today as well we were training again early in the morning, 7:30. You can still see the players find it hard, it’s the heat and humidity in the morning as well, the sun’s out, and still recovering from that game. So, it’s not easy, but we try to make the best of it, and you know, the players need to get their rest, need to get their vitamins and everything so they’re good and sharp and optimum and fit when they kick off Thursday morning.”

Normally, FCC would eat a team meal of pasta or something similar three hours before kickoff, but Stam said players need to sleep in as long as they can and still have time to get ready. So, they’ll do as much prep the night before and then players can have breakfast in the morning, have a team meeting and head to the field.

“You just kind of roll with it,” left back Andrew Gutman said. “We’re in unprecedented times with COVID, so you just got to kind of get on with it. You have to be mentally strong and prepare yourself. The last few days we’ve been waking up early, just to get our bodies reset, wake up a couple hours before 9 a.m. kickoff so we’re fully ready. And yeah, it is tough but at the same time we’re professional so you have to deal with it as best we can and just kind of get on with it.”

The rematch with Atlanta …

Players spent plenty of time during the COVID-19 shutdown reviewing film and meeting virtually with staff to discuss corrections that could have been made from the first two games in March. 

There was a lot to learn from both games, but how much still applies four months later with a new coach, Atlanta featuring some new players and everyone basically starting fresh? Stam said it’s only a little helpful in terms of what to expect, but the Orange and Blue can learn from having seen some of Atlanta’s tendencies and what hurt them in the first matchup.

“It’s gonna be an interesting match,” Stam said. “Atlanta is I think one of the strongest teams in the league. They have proven that last season already. Again, individually very good players, attacking side. If they can create the overload, they’ve got a lot of people going forward so that makes it for them very interesting for the opposition at times. Hard to defend, you can see that in every game that they’re playing. It’s a team that’s been well structured, well built for the last couple of seasons.”

Left back Andrew Gutman said the game will be different on a neutral field as well.

“The first time we played in front of 70,000 of their fans,” Gutman said. “That gives them a lot more adrenaline, a lot more willingness to go forward and create chances, and now they don’t have that so I think it’s going to be a completely different game. And I think we’re going to be able to express ourselves a little bit more, since we’re not technically on the road.”

Old teammates coaching on opposite sidelines…

Stam and second-year Atlanta coach Frank de Boer played center back together on the Netherlands national team from 1996 to 2004, and Stam described their relationships as being close on the field. He and de Boer had a unique understanding of one another’s tendencies playing together but that doesn’t necessarily translate to their relationship as coaches.  

“We had a partnership at the back as two center backs, Frank playing on the left and myself on the right as a center back,” Stam said. “We played several years together on the national team, and I think the partnership was very good. Even without speaking, we knew what the other one was going to do, what his positioning was on the ball and his movement, so that was really clear with us. Off the pitch we didn’t have a lot of contact with each other. He was playing at the time for Ajax, I was playing with PSV in Holland and after that he went to Barcelona and I went to Manchester United in the UK and that’s how it goes sometimes in soccer. When you’re meeting up, when you’re playing together in a certain team or a national team then the relationship is very good, but eventually everybody goes his own way and then the communication fades at times but I’m sure when we meet up on Thursday, you know the banter and the communication is there again and then it’s like we’ve never been apart from each other. 

“So the relationship in general, it’s always been good, and now to meet up and playing against each other in MLS in Orlando, it is something special, because we know each other quite well and Frankie’s been here last season as well and had time to build and to work on his team, which is very good, and well, I’m looking forward to this particular game.”

From the training room…

FCC was missing a few players Saturday because of injury, but some of those appear healed while the team is keeping an eye on a couple new ailments.

Midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin remains out with an ankle injury. Center forward Jurgen Locadia likely remains out, although listed as questionable with a quad injury. He suffered the injury in training July 2 and was expected to be out at least two weeks, and Stam has noted the need for extra caution with him. 

Three new “questionable” injuries are listed on the game notes, all of which appear precautionary: Greg Garza (hamstring), Siem de Jong (groin) and Allan Cruz (ankle).

Maikel van der Werff was out with a concussion Saturday but is not listed on the report and appears to be available for selection. Joe Gyau picked up a knock late last week and did not dress Saturday but also is not listed on this week’s injury report.

Projected starting lineup…

On Saturday, FC Cincinnati had five new players in the starting lineup from the two games played before COVID-19 shutdowns, including a 2-1 loss at Atlanta on March 7. Przemyslaw Tyton started in goal instead of Spencer Richey, Saad Abdul-Salaam replaced Mathieu Deplagne at right back, Tom Pettersson stepped in for the injured van der Werff (concussion), de Jong replaced Cruz, who subbed in the second half, and Kekuta Manneh started instead of Jurgen Locadia (quad)/Brandon Vazquez but swapped spots with Adrien Regattin to play on the right wing. 

FCC’s game notes list the starting lineup against the Crew as a possible starting XI, but below is my guess…


Goalkeeper: Przemysław Tytoń 

Back line: Mathieu Deplagne, Maikel van der Werff, Kendall Waston, Andrew Gutman

Midfield: Haris Medunjanin, Frankie Amaya, Siem de Jong

Forwards: Kekuta Manneh, Adrien Regattin, Yuya Kubo

NOTES: Stam may want a live look at Deplagne in a game after having seen Abdul-Salaam without much different results; and Garza struggling these first three games makes a case for Gutman to get a look. The back line decisions seem the most difficult right now. 

UPDATE: It seems Cruz might be out tomorrow, so I’m guessing Stam sticks with the veteran Medunjanin, but it might be a good time to give Fatai Alashe or Caleb Stanko a chance. 

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