On Saturday evening, Columbus Crew SC and FC Cincinnati meet for the first time in Major League Soccer play. After a 2017 U.S. Open Cup match — won by Cincinnati — and Carolina Challenge Cup preseason encounter — victory to Columbus — this game at MAPFRE Stadium will officially kick off the Hell Is Real rivalry in league play.
The 2019 season has been rough for both Ohio teams. While the Crew started the year brightly, an injury-riddled summer saw the Black & Gold go through a 16-game stretch with only one win. Cincinnati has been worse this year, currently sitting at the bottom of the MLS standings with just five wins, 24 points and an MLS-worst 55 goals conceded.
Questions for The Enquirer
Massive Report: After coming off such a successful year in the USL and the U.S. Open Cup run, what were the expectations for Cincinnati fans to start the team’s first MLS season?
Cincinnati Enquirer: To understand the frustration of 2019 you really have to know how meaningful the USL years were to FC Cincinnati supporters. These fans weren’t just waiting out the clock until MLS came calling. They were fully invested – in the matches, the derby with Louisville City FC, the club’s players, the week-to-week results. The things that happened in USL are part of the fabric of the club, and winning was a big part of that fabric, particularly the 2017 U.S. Open Cup run and the 2018 USL regular season championship shield. So, there was a baseline expectation of competitiveness but it was grounded in realism. This wasn’t going to be Atlanta United or LAFC. Maybe it could be a legit playoff contender like Orlando City SC was in its first season. In any event, I think fans understood there was significant issues by the end of the preseason, and the 3-0 loss to Crew SC in the Carolina Challenge Cup.
MR: For Crew fans who haven’t followed FC Cincy as closely this year, can you identify a few things that have caused the struggles in 2019?
CI: FC Cincinnati took gambles on certain players in constructing its roster, as all teams do, but a disproportionate number of those bets didn’t hit. Fanendo Adi is the first example of that. That move basically exploded on the launchpad as his work ethic was questioned before the club even got to MLS. Greg Garza, too, hasn’t really been a great acquisition yet because of multiple injury spells. The back four defenders were also supposed to be very strong. Obviously, you defend as a team but I think the center backs in particular have disappointed. It’s hard to evaluate the goalkeeping because the defense, from front to back, has been so poor. There are only a handful of players you can look at and reasonably say, “he needs to be part of the process going forward for FC Cincinnati.”
MR: Ron Jans was recently named Cincinnati’s new head coach, but it seems he may not be the long-term answer. What’s going on with the situation and is this a smart move by the club in your eyes?
CI: I think this is a sensible course of action. First of all, Jans’ job is kind of a unique concept relative to most coaching hires in North American pro sports. He wasn’t hired to hopefully work everything out quickly, stay for 10 years and ride off into the sunset. He’s the fixer. Period, and not necessarily the one to take them to the top. He was hired to fix and stabilize the soccer side of the organization until it moves into its own stadium and has revenue streams that allow them to be more ambitious on the personnel side. Period. Anything beyond that would mean that Jans out-performed his mandate. Secondly, Jans already expressed an interest in staying beyond his initial 18-month contract and the club has said all along that option will remain on the table. He may end up having a long tenure in Cincinnati but that’s not what his focus is for now.
MR: With this being the first MLS meeting of this new rivalry, what is the excitement like in Cincinnati for this game?
CI: Excitement is very high. Two good results against Columbus over the next few weeks could *almost* save the season for FC Cincinnati at this point. There’s very little left to salvage and beating Columbus at Columbus would mean everything to these fans, although there’s certainly an awareness Columbus is also struggling this season. That both clubs are hurting for results takes some of the luster off these matches but my honest sense it that winning at Columbus and maybe getting a result at Nippert Stadium in a couple weeks would completely change how people in Cincy view 2019.