Stam-inspired FC Cincinnati Progress to the Knockout Stage.
FC Cincinnati has certainly been one of the surprises of the MLS is Back tournament. Considering their tournament started precariously with a 0-4 shellacking (https://youtu.be/OXrJURnxpNo ) at the feet of their in-state Hell is Real rival, many are scratching their heads and pondering how did they manage to advance to the Knockout Stage.
To fully understand and appreciate this achievement, let us step back to gain some perspective and to see the forest for the trees:
FC Cincinnati announced Jaap Stam as the new Head Coach on May 21st (fourth coaching change since joining MLS in 2019).
Jaap, unable to immediately travel to Cincinnati due to COVID-19 restrictions, did not hold his first training session until June 16th – just 3 1/2 weeks before his team’s first match in Orlando.
Shortly after arriving “inside the bubble”, FCC’s $10M Dutch striker on loan, Jürgen Locadia, suffered a thigh injury and was declared day-to-day by the club.
Locadia missed the first match and his teammates, following a lively first 20 minutes, were literally and figuratively run off the pitch.
Media pundits howled at the pathetic display by FCC, players were discouraged, and fans lobbed hot takes across social media platforms.
Literally adding insult to injury, several more injuries to key starters popped up. Fellow Designated Player, and last year’s team MVP and leading scorer, Allan Cruz and Locadia’s former teammate, Siem de Jong, incurred knocks and were both declared out for the Atlanta United tilt.
FCC headed into their 2nd round MLS is Back match without the services of 2 of their 3 DPs and their new TAM playmaker de Jong. They carried only 21 players (including 3 goalies) on the 23-man match day roster.
Then something happened … Coach Stam unleashed his tactical acumen. He needed to quickly implement a strategy to stem the landslide, re-ignite his demoralized squad and salvage the tournament. He succeeded by rolling out a formation that is 180 degrees opposite his possession style game plan and vastly different to how the roster is being re-hauled. Not only did the Orange & Blue advance to the Knockout Stage, they won back-to-back games for the third time in their MLS franchise history. Arguably more impressive, FCC registered consecutive clean sheets for the first time in their short history in the league. Keep in mind, this team has the same defense that allowed a league high 75 goals on their way to collecting the Wooden Spoon in 2019 and already shipped 9 goals against in their first three matches this season.
Much has been written, positively and negatively; ohhh far too much in the negative column about these two wins and the sustainability of success for the team. In lieu of wallowing into a point-counter point essay, my aim in this piece is to elaborate on the impact of “The Stam Effect”, highlight a few player performances, and look in the spy glass toward the Knockout Stage game(s).
The Stam Effect
The selection of Jaap Stam as the latest FC Cincinnati manager came with great fanfare and hope. His decorated playing career is well known; however, the verdict is still out regarding Stam the coach. The appointment to assume the FCC coaching duties is Jaap’s fourth senior team manager position across three nations & leagues. He arrived in Cincinnati with a 55-48-30 (W-L-D) senior manager record.
Although the current sample size is quite small, only 5 weeks on the job for the Orange & Blue, we are clearly able to decipher some key coaching characteristics and patterns of a Stam-led team. Here are a few:
Not surprisingly, as seen throughout his playing career, immediate reports coming out
of Stam’s initial training sessions indicated the intensity of those sessions. Once in Orlando, trainings were limited to 90 minutes each but at the Mercy Healthy Training Complex before heading to MLS is Back, sessions were as grueling as 2 ½ hours long.
When asked how the training sessions were going under Stam, FCC captain and fellow Center Back tradesman Kendall Waston reacted, “Well it has been really hard, really intense and everybody’s happy.” A few days later, burgeoning MF talent Frankie Amaya added, “I mean, we’ve been pushing ourselves and the intensity has been way higher than I think ever before.”
Training at a high-level of intensity is reciprocal to match like conditions and appears to be helping the players react to Stam’s expectations and game plans.
Stam did not have the same opportunity every other MLS manager has had by going through a full pre-season with his squad. He had precious few training opportunities to comprehend what his team’s and player strengths and weaknesses were for actual game conditions. Following one of the last training sessions before departing to Florida, Stam lamented, “The only thing that makes it more difficult is that we haven’t got any practice games so we can’t play against other teams. So then it’s difficult to see and where the game or where the team is at and then what we definitely need to improve or do better and what we are already doing very well”.
Stam has been candid about treating this time and experience in Orlando as an extended pre-season for himself and the team. He recently stated, “In the process that we’re in, we’re still like sort of in a preseason in week four.”
Without the benefit of a real pre-season, what cannot be questioned is Stam’s understanding of his players capabilities and his ability to prepare effective match scripts to beat both Atlanta United and RBNY. Ask his players and they will share that their Coach forecasted exactly how those two matches would play out (even down to the red card in the Atlanta match).
Following the surprise victory over Atlanta, Stam provided critical insight into his pragmatic, defensive-minded approach for that game, “We need to be realistic to where we are as a team. So if you play against of the best teams in the league, you cannot think ok that we need to press high, and we need to have a lot more possession, or that we need to create at least 10 chances, it’s never going to happen in soccer.”
As a fan, one of my biggest pet peeves of managers is not being pragmatic enough and not being willing to adjust their strategies to fit their players, game day rosters, flow of the game, and need for a result to fit the situation at hand. Stam has delivered on all of these, in spades.
Closely aligned with this pragmatic approach, Stam unveiled his tactical cleverness and flexibility to roll out a different system of play with only four days to prepare and a depleted roster. Following the Atlanta victory, Stam stated, “I like my team to play two systems, 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 (or 5-2-3) and today we did it a little bit different in the setup because I think it’s good for players that you can switch and you don’t always need to focus on one thing cause then you can make it difficult for the opposition.”
National pundits criticized the Atlanta win as hollow, not stylistic enough and were highly skeptical of FCC replicating this defensive-minded strategy going forward. To be clear … Stam out-dueled, out-coached and tactically outclassed his former Dutch national teammate and former managerial boss at Ajax. That loss may have been the final blow to de Boer’s time in Atlanta as they agreed to part ways on Friday.
Less than a week later, Stam and his players reproduced a winning tactical game plan, defeated the Red Bulls 2-0, secured 2nd place in Group E and advanced to the Knockout Stage.
The Big Picture
Stam apparently does see the forest for the trees and understands where his team is today and what is needed to grind out a result when most needed. Following their latest victory, Jaap said, “Overall, it’s a very good performance from our side. It’s again, a win. Three points gives us confidence going to the next phase. If you’re looking at the table, (the win) gives us six points, which is very positive.” He continued, “Already against these two very big teams, very big, very good opponents, getting this success tells you something about this team, as well as the mentality that’s in there.”
As an analyst and Orange & Blue fan, it is quite refreshing to see Stam’s preparation, pragmatism & tactical flexibility to fit the need for each individual match. This tells me all I need to know about his managerial chops and ability to be successful with this team.
Over the three matches in Orlando, many of FC Cincinnati’s players have risen to the occasion with the tactical changes. However, here are three player performances of note:
Frankie Amaya – the local expectations for Frankie started as soon as he was taken No. 1 overall in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft in January 2019. National pundits added their accolades and expectations following a very good rookie campaign. Frankie understood though that consistency of play and finishing were areas he needed to work on to become a starting midfielder in this league. The biggest bump in Frankie’s play has been his confidence on the ball in the final third. Amaya showed his new shooting prowess by scoring the winning goal against Atlanta and taking home AT&T Goal of the week honors for Round 2 . The 19-year old’s play this season, and especially in Orlando, will make it very difficult for Stam to leave him out of the starting XI, even with the return of Cruz and de Jong. Amaya is a young talent to watch in MLS and for the U-23 MNT.
Andrew Gutman – Gutman is on loan from Scottish League powerhouse Celtic Football Club through the end of the year. His pedigree is unquestioned winning the 2018 MAC Hermann Trophy – the annual award given to the United States’ best college soccer player. Last August, FC Cincinnati acquired Gutman’s MLS Homegrown rights from the Chicago Fire. Until recently, he had subbed or rotated in for former USMNT player Greg Garza at the left fullback spot. Stam brought the 23-year old Gutman in at half vs the Crew and he appears to have grabbed the opportunity fully. Andrew fits Stam’s vision of a left wingback nicely; utilizing his pace to get up and down the flank to contribute on the attack and get back defensively. FCC’s first goal vs RBNY illustrated the impact Andrew can have on this team on the counter. In a flash, his effort and ability to place a ball into danger resulted in the New York defensive error and Yuya Kubo’s winning goal. Similar as Amaya, it will be difficult to keep Gutman out of the starting XI going forward.
Joe Gyau – as a self-confessed Joe Gyau homer (we grew up in the same town - Silver Spring, MD - but many years apart), I have followed his career from his early USYNT days, his move and time in Germany and with the USMNT team. Joe joined FCC just days after Gutman last August. The biggest tactical surprise Coach Stam has deployed this tournament was the absolute confidence in playing Gyau at the right wingback role the last two matches; a position he only played one other time with MSV Duisburg. Gyau turned the Atlanta match on its head by his marauding runs up the right flank, forcing Jake Mulraney to pick up his 2nd yellow and red in the 26th minute. Gyau’s confidence is soaring right now and adds a ton of pace and flexibility to fit Stam’s tactical savviness on either wing or wingback spot.
Adding emphasis to the unexpected advancement of FC Cincinnati to the Knockout Stage, prior to the start of the tournament the famed 538 website modeled FCC with the smallest percentage chance (31%) of all MLS teams to advance to the second round. Possibly, they forgot to take in account The Stam Effect.
The beauty and fun of tournament soccer is that anything can happen in the knockout rounds (see European Championship Champions Greece in 2004 and Portugal in 2016) … add into the mix the craziness that is MLS and who knows how far this newly confident side can progress.
It appears that FC Cincinnati will be closer to full force with the expected return of Locadia, de Jong and Cruz to the game day roster. I expect to see Stam roll out a similar version of the 5 in the back defensive shape versus the Portland Timbers Tuesday night and look for hybrid ways to integrate de Jong & Locadia upfront. Stam will keep the game plan straight forward, ask his players to keep play in front of them and grind out another performance.
Looking at the Knockout Stage bracket, if FCC can find a way to get past Portland, they wouldn’t face the Union or Sporting KC until the semi-finals and they would not see any of the star-studded teams in LAFC, Seattle and Columbus until the final. In tournament soccer, you never know!
You can find Stephen’s soccer insights and coverage at @sbuck67 as well as a contributor on the You Ain’t Lion podcast (@Zuhause513).