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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: FC Cincinnati

The currently manager-less Midwesterners offer an enticing opportunity for a New York rout…just like last time

MLS: FC Cincinnati at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

The New York Red Bulls had every opportunity to secure three points against the Philadelphia Union but were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw. Earlier in the season, this would be considered a solid result against a local rival. With the playoff deadline drawing closer, there is less use for moral victories or building blocks. As Shep Messing said on the MSG Network broadcast, “I think if [the next two winnable games against FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami] are not six points, then it is over.”

FC Cincinnati was in the midst of another terrible Major League Soccer season and opted to pull the plug for a third time. Jaap Stam is gone, replaced by interim manager Tyrone Marshall. The former Jamaica international was previously an assistant at Real Salt Lake and is currently the head coach of the club’s U-19 team. A brief stint in charge of the since-dissolved River City Rovers is his only experience leading a club.

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.

A SMALL MEASURE OF PITY

Cincinnati deserves sympathy, especially after making the significant jump from USL to MLS based on the strength of a large fan base, on-field success, and, of course, a financially solvent owner. The club is always trying to do the right thing but manages to fall short. In succession, there was loyalty shown to lower-league staff, two splashy European hires, and a lot of money spent on transfer fees. Everything has failed in a disastrous way.

The club reminds me of episode 13 in season six of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, titled I, Clownius. The quasi-eponymous character – a hapless clown by the name of Juggles – kidnaps Will, Carlton, and Uncle Phil (Judge Philip Banks) on their way to the “Showbiz Madam” trial, threatening them with an explosive. In a desperate grab for fame and relevancy, the performer attempts to impress a very confused crowd inside the courtroom with his terrible tricks and antics.

After failing to delight a captive audience, Will tries to console and reason with the episode’s sympathetic antagonist. “Listen, let me say something to you as a friend,” he tells Juggles. “You suck, all right? The reason you can’t get work, it’s not because people don’t like you, man. You know, it’s not because people don’t want to give you a chance. It’s because you suck. You know? You’re not funny. You suck.”

Cincinnati deserves credit for trying and not being sentimental. USL manager Alan Koch was fired a few months into his MLS tenure. Stam was let go before the end of the season, not allowing the drain-circling to continue. An astonishing $13 million was spent to acquire Brenner from São Paulo. Has any of it worked?

In the first two MLS seasons, Cincinnati finished in 24th and 26th. This year, the club is currently at 27th in the overall league table. Despite all the attempted improvements over multiple years, they suck. It’s not because people don’t like them. It’s not because people don’t want to give them a chance. It’s because they suck.

TRAP GAME

The Red Bulls have few remaining chances to make up ground and steal a playoff spot. Normally, a match again a 4-14-8 team would be an appealing prospect to grab three points. Unfortunately, the recent change at the manager position may have rendered this a thoroughly unappealing and ruined opportunity, a continuing theme during this 2021 season.

Interims exist in the hinterland, where results don’t matter until they do. They’re also likely to experience a mild change of fortune. According to Professor Sue Bridgewater of Warwick Business School, these temporary stewards enjoy “a boost for a short honeymoon period.” Clubs fire managers at a low point, after which comes a regression to the mean, both in the rapid rise and collapse back down to Earth. [Kuper, Simon. Szymanski, Stefan. Soccernomics. Nation Books, 2018.]

“Whatever the reason for hitting a low, things will almost inevitably improve afterward. The new manager rarely causes the pendulum to swing. He’s just a beneficiary of the swing. Perhaps some players briefly work harder to impress him, though on that logic clubs should sack managers even more often. Eventually results regress to the mean. Bridgewater found that three months after a sacking, the typical club averaged the standard 1.3 points a game. ‘Most studies find that coach dismissals do not improve team performance,’ say the Dutch economists Jan van Ours and Martin van Tuijl in a study that found the same thing.” [Kuper, Szymanski, pp. 152-153]

Replacing Stam with Marshall could lead to an uptick in results, unless Cincinnati fails to come together under the temporary manager and continues to circle the drain. With one win in 15 matches, the run of form could not have gotten much worse. This is all to say that the Red Bulls may face a greater challenge than had the firing not occurred at this juncture.

WHEN THEY’RE GOOD

FC Cincinnati is bad in the typical ways. The team is near the bottom of the league in goals, goals allowed (or the top in this one), save percentage (using three different goalkeepers that love surrendering easy rebounds), progressive pass distance (odd but perhaps logical for a possession team), passing in the final third, and completed crosses. The inability to score or prevent the other team from scoring shockingly tends to correlate with losing.

Prior to a midweek swap in table positions, Toronto FC was the only MLS team worse than Cincinnati. The two titans – post-banishment to Tartarus – faced off twice in the last month, splitting results. That September 11th fixture was the Ohioans only win since June 26th, when they defeated none other than Toronto FC. It’s like dueling pianos, with both musicians banging their heads on the keys.

Looking at the two matches against Toronto before the firing, Cincinnati failed to do anything particularly notable or special when compared to their other performances. Three of the goals involved the ball moving outside then quickly back into the center. Twice, opportunities were created from pressure. The team won tackles, shot less often, dribbled less frequently, and played more long balls. All of these behaviors were also present in the August 4th scoreless draw against the Red Bulls and somewhat in the midweek fixture.

That less artful play could carry into this weekend, particularly under a new manager. Interims tend to favor a “back to basics” approach, watering down the tactical strategy and putting players in a position to succeed with reduced responsibilities. Cincinnati could opt for a bunker-and-counter, allowing the forwards to provide light pressure, abandoning all idealized notions of possession and building out of the back. No sense in attempting a pseudo-Dutch style when it didn’t seem to be working in the first place.

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.