Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati
Jaap Stam recognizes the significance of his first game as FC Cincinnati head coach.
Fans have waited four months between matches and now are anxious to see how the legendary former Manchester United defender makes an impact with a club trying to shake the tag as 2019’s worst team. Players say they saw progress in the first two games before the league shut down March 12 because of COVID-19, but five goals against felt all too familiar for a defense that leaked an MLS-record 75 goals last year.
Early results through the MLS is Back Tournament will be important for regaining confidence. FCC opens Saturday against Columbus Crew SC in the first “Hell is Real” derby of 2020. The three Group E games count toward the regular-season standings, assume play continues after the tournament, which is being held without fans at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando.
“For me to coach a game is very important and now being over here for Cincinnati and being in Orlando and going to coach our first game, this is nice,” Stam said in a Zoom news conference Thursday. “I’m looking forward to it. I think we need it as well, because the players and everybody around the team have been working very hard to get to this point so we can prove ourselves so we can show ourselves as well. … And of course going into this first game, it’s going to be interesting to see what we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks and how that’s going to work out.”
Stam noted the team – medical staff, coaches and players – also has been working hard to stay safe so they can play these games as COVID-19 has been showing up around other clubs. FC Dallas and Nashville each had at least nine positive tests within their team and were withdrawn this week.
According to TheAthletic.com, New York Red Bulls had two positive tests that were cleared as false positives this week, and Columbus Crew SC initially had a positive test that later retested negative.
FCC is anxious to just get to game time.
“I mean that’s kind of the whole reason we are going on with it,” Richey said in a phone interview Monday. “Obviously lots of guys are risking a lot to be down here, whether it’s exposure to the virus potentially or being away from family. You know, at the end of the day it’s all to play games and, to compete and do what we’d love to do so. Now that we’re kind of in our routine so to speak, I think things are gonna start moving pretty quickly and I know guys are here to get off on a good note on Saturday.”
Orlando seems like the least ideal place to be right now with Florida COVID-19 case numbers skyrocketing and humid weather with temperatures reaching the 90s; however, as Haris Medunjanin pointed out, “everyone faces the same conditions.”
The Orange and Blue might actually have an advantage in that they arrived in Orlando well before two of their three group opponents, thus giving themselves more time to adjust to the climate. New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United arrived July 4. FCC arrived June 29, the day after the Crew traveled.
“If you are going to think negative about all these things, then you’re gonna play also bad,” he said. “So I think everybody should be focused on the game. Even with all this thing going on, what can we do? We are here right now. We cannot pack up right now so as long as we are here, we should prove a point that we are a good team and show the league that Cincinnati exists.”
From the trainers’ room: FCC center forward Jurgen Locadia suffered a quad injury July 2 in training and is listed as “questionable” in the game notes put out by the team but is unlikely to play.
Stams said in a team-provided interview Monday that he’s likely out for “a couple of weeks.”
“He’s got a slight problem with his thigh,” Stam said in the interview. “We’re looking at him from day to day in what he can do. The medical staff is assessing him every day. He’s every time with us on the pitch, in the hotel in the gym and we need to take it easy as well because he came late. He’s not been into full sessions as the group was before so we need to look at him from day to day… We need to take it easy because when he is coming back, he needs to be ready.”
Locadia missed at least a week with the club right before full team training began June 15 while he was on vacation. General manager Gerard Nijkamp, through a now-departed club spokesperson, said June 12 that the team was holding him out from training as a precaution and noted he was still connecting with team trainers; however, his Instagram posts indicated he was in Spain with his girlfriend and two young kids, who he hadn’t seen in almost six months.
A week later Locadia’s loan from Brighton was extended another year, and he was back to training. He traveled to Orlando with FCC on June 29, but Stam points to his time off from training last month as a reason to take special caution.
As of Thursday, there wasn’t much more of an update.
“We assess him every day,” Stam said in his pre-game Zoom news conference Thursday. “So we look at him, and he’s working out with the physios. He’s having treatment. So we’re looking every day a little bit in what he can do, if he can do a little bit more but we need to be cautious with him in how to get him into full training again.”
Brandon Vazquez is expected to start in his absence Saturday. Vazquez started the opener March 1 at New York Red Bulls after Locadia arrived late while getting his work visa finalized.
In other injury news, midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin is out with an ankle injury.
Showing support for the Black community: Players were given a chance to add hand-written messages or names of people they want to recognize to a patch that appears on the back of their jerseys to wear Saturday. Basically, it’s a cause or person the players feel compelled to play for, bigger than soccer.
FCC players wrote things like “Black Lives Matter” or the names of Black people who were killed by police. Some people used that space as a chance to honor someone fighting on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic or other individuals who are on the players’ minds. FCCincinnati.com reporter Charlie Hatch detailed what each player wrote in a story posted Friday on the team website.
To FCC defender Greg Garza, there is nothing the Orange and Blue could do to top Wednesday’s pre-game ceremony ahead of the Miami-Orlando City game to open the MLS is Back Tournament. In a powerful scene organized by Black Players for Change, several minority players from each team stood around the field for a full 8 minutes and 46 seconds, fist raised and wearing black shirts with different messages on them, such as “Silence is Violence” and “Black Lives Matter.”
“I think the main message for all of us was (Wednesday) at the opener for this whole entire tournament and I think that in my personal opinion, it was an outstanding thing for all of them to do,” Garza said. “But I wish I could have been there right next to them and also had my hand up and showing support of what this country is going through right now and with that, just the silence that was there, just to show that everyone is in unity right now. Everybody is together, and we’re all fighting for the same cause and for all the Black guys that went out last night, all the African Americans or wherever they are from, whatever color, shape, size we are in this world, I think that for all of us, we were all unified and united (Wednesday) with their message. I’m very proud to be part of a league that is so diverse and has so much diversity and so many people from so many different backgrounds. … (Wednesday) night’s message for me was by far the biggest message we could have given not only as players but as the league as well.”
Group E thoughts: Midfielder Frankie Amaya said while Atlanta and New York Red Bulls are getting a lot of attention as the top two teams in Group E, Columbus Crew is just as big of a challenge.
Here are his thoughts on the group as a whole:
“It’s a big challenge because obviously we know Atlanta United has been good these last two seasons,” Amaya said Wednesday. “They’ve been consistent going into the playoffs both years and winning obviously one, but playing Atlanta is always hard because they’ve got DPs that can really change the game. New York Red Bulls is a good attacking team that has a bunch of energy that never stops running, and I think Columbus is actually a better team now that they made new signings with (Darlington) Nagbe coming in and two wingers, but obviously it’s all challenges but we can’t forget we’re here to compete, to stay in this tournament and do our best to keep qualifying.”
Speaking of Frankie: Amaya has shown great potential in a short time since FCC drafted him No. 1 overall last year, but perhaps he has a backup career as a barber. He started “Frankie’s Fadezzz” (check it out on Instagram) and has been cutting hair for his teammates in Orlando.
“I think it’s going pretty good for us so far,” Amaya said of his side gig. “I don’t think I’ve really messed anybody up. But, I think they come in asking for haircuts but come out with blessings.”
He said he doesn’t know how big his client list is, but it’s growing.
Lineup projection: FCC put out a projected lineup as usual in its game notes for media (see photo), but I’m making a couple changes based on how it seems things are going in training so far and how Stam might be leaning.
MY STARTING XI
Goalkeeper: Przemysław Tytoń
Back line: Mathieu Deplagne, Maikel van der Werff, Kendall Waston, Greg Garza
Midfield: Haris Medunjanin, Allan Cruz, Siem de Jong
Forwards: Adrien Regattin, Brandon Vazquez, Yuya Kubo
Reminder, there are five subs allowed in the MLS is Back Tournament, which could benefit the wingers and midfield especially, and I would still expect a player like Frankie Amaya to get plenty of time if he is in fact coming off the bench.
“I think you always prepare yourself to give it 100% in each game, so it doesn’t matter in that sense,” Cruz said through a translator, regarding the five subs mentality. “But yes, now we have five subs so that just means that we can freshen up the team when it’s tired.”