Players energized by FC Cincinnati’s new look

Kamohelo Mokotjo returns as part of FC Cincinnati’s rebuild in 2021. Photo: Erik Schelkun/4th Floor Creative

Kamohelo Mokotjo said his late-season arrival with FC Cincinnati last year was a helpful learning experience about how he needed to prepare his body this offseason.

The 30-year-old defensive midfielder came back after the four-month break ready to make an impact and anxious to see how a rebuilt squad would look on the pitch.

FCC, which needed to replace 11 players from the 2020 roster, officially began preseason training Monday, and the team is building up toward its first competition Saturday in a closed-door friendly with Louisville City at Mercy Health Training Center.

Mokotjo is in his first camp with FCC after joining the club in September on a free transfer following three seasons with Brentford FC, but for him — and others on the team — it feels like a fresh start. Cincinnati finished last each of its first two seasons in MLS.

“I feel I was fortunate enough to get some playing time and just understand what the league was like towards the end of the season,” Mokotjo said Thursday of his nine-game experience with FCC last year. “I learned a lot. I learned that this is a league that has a lot of speed, and you have to be fit, you have to keep healthy in order to maintain a high level of performance, so I learned a lot and looking forward to obviously jelling with the new players.

“I must say the club has made a lot of good signings, so looking forward to what we can do this season, and everything else, of course, going into the new stadium.”

FC Cincinnati needs a bit of magic to turn things around from two disjointed MLS campaigns, but the hope lies in general manager Gerard Nijkamp’s ability this offseason to shed inherited contracts and shape the roster how he and Jaap Stam see fit.

The most notable additions have come in the signings of left back Ronald Matarrita and Brazilian striker Brenner, as well as yet-to-be announced attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta.

“Now, obviously, I’m very excited,” Mokotjo said. “And credit to the club for these reinforcements and the players they brought in. Looking forward to working with them. I think last season, there were a lot of good spells in games and the way that we see ourselves as a team, see ourselves playing as a team. But obviously, we knew we could improve and I believe that the new players that have come in will make the squad stronger. And like I said last season, I’ll say it again this season, we all need each other to perform and to get maximum points and results.” 

Matarrita was well-aware of the project he was coming to when FCC acquired him from New York City FC in December after five seasons in the Big Apple.

The 26-year-old Costa Rican international had played twice against FCC the past two seasons, including a full 90-minute contribution to NYCFC’s 4-1 win at Nippert Stadium in 2019. And being on a rival Eastern Conference team, Matarrita knew of FCC’s struggles since joining MLS.

After speaking with Stam, he was ready for the new challenge.

“I think all the players that arrived have the same goal of helping the team reach goals that maybe have not been possible before,” Matarrita said in a virtual press conference Thursday, as translated by the club from his native Spanish language. “I think we need to have more character to be able to reach the goals we want. Without a doubt, this will be a good year for us.  We will try to give 100% of us.”

Matarrita added, “Since I arrived to NYCFC, I’ve had the opportunity to be in the playoffs in all my seasons in MLS. Now that I am here, we will try to what’s possible to continue with that streak and make the team function better. With all the new signings, I think we have a super strong team, super competitive, and I think this year we can reach many of the goals we set. Hopefully, lift a title.”

Matarrita is widely considered an upgrade at left back after the team moved on from Andrew Gutman, trading away his MLS rights to Atlanta. Gutman, who the Five Stripes sent on loan with New York Red Bulls, was solid as a defender for FCC but struggled moving into the attacking third, and that is an area where Matarrita thrives.

The freedom to get more involved in the offense is something that energizes Matarrita, and he’s especially excited to link up with Brenner, whom he saw play in Brazil.

“I think he is a very good player,” Matarrita said. “Obviously, he is training separately since he barely arrived and has to complete some days before training with the club. But, without a doubt he is a player that will help us a lot. He is an excellent player. Besides that, he is a very good person. I had the pleasure of sharing some words with him.”

Although not new this season, Nijkamp considers Mokotjo to be a cornerstone piece of the roster rebuild for this year, as one of two players acquired on long-term deals during the 2020 secondary transfer window. Nijkamp has been slowly trying to overhaul the roster since last offseason when he brought in players like Jurgen Locadia, Yuya Kubo and Tom Pettersson.

Mokotjo came shortly before Alvaro Barreal in the delayed 2020 summer transfer window, and FCC is hoping the MLS experience for those players paves a path for better results this season. Mokotjo, a South African international who turned 30 on Thursday, showed promise in his limited time last year but wants to play a greater role in 2021.

“I think physically and where I am in my career, I think I can only get stronger and I am getting stronger,” Mokotjo said. “And I believe that I’ll have more of an influence this season when it comes to playing time and also influencing results, influencing the teammates around me. Obviously, I just turned 30 and struggled with a lot of injuries last year. I think I was out for about nine months before signing for FC Cincinnati, but it’s good for any player to have a preseason. I think that’ll help me a lot. That will also boost the chances of the team performing well this season. So I’m looking forward to obviously seeing what we can do and pushing the boys, pushing myself and seeing what type of impact we can have on each other as players.”

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