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Crossing the Touchline: Crew at FC Cincinnati

We reached out to Laurel Pfahler from Queen City Press to learn about the Black & Gold’s Saturday opponent.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at FC Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the Columbus Crew make the two-hour journey south to take on in-state rivals FC Cincinnati. In the second edition of the Hell is Real Derby in 2022, the Black & Gold face a Cincinnati side that was missing an important cog in the team’s offensive machine, but also lose a midfielder who causes problems for the opposition.

To learn more about Cincinnati’s recent form and the team’s rise to MLS Cup playoff contention, Massive Report spoke with Laurel Pfahler from Queen City Press.

Massive Report: This season, forward Brandon Vazquez, midfielder Luciano Acosta and forward Brenner have turned into completely different players. They lead the league in total goals produced and have Cincinnati playing the team’s best soccer since joining MLS. Is this because of head coach Pat Noonan or an understanding growing between the three? What changed for the attack from last year?

Queen City Press: I think it’s a combination of things that started with general manager Chris Albright’s hire last October. He wanted to switch from the 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, and both Brenner and Vazquez benefited from that. Vazquez went from being the backup center forward to now having a role, starting the last five games of 2021 and scoring in three consecutive games in that stretch.

He had played plenty off the bench under coach Jaap Stam but never could get in a rhythm and I think it was a confidence boost just getting those opportunities late last year, and he’s just continued to build on that this season (15 goals, 4 assists). Before then, he was always the backup to guys like Josef Martinez in Atlanta, then Jurgen Locadia and Brenner in Cincinnati, but now he’s making the most of his opportunities.

Brenner had a decent first season in MLS considering his youth and the adjustment to being in a new country where no one spoke his language, but in Brazil, he always played with a second striker and that fits his style of play best. This season got off to a slow start for him because he missed preseason while awaiting a green card, then he hurt his back in Week 2 and it wasn’t really healed until the international break.

Since then, he’s made 11 goal contributions over 12 starts (all nine of his goals and two of his four assists in that span). For him, it’s the system, more familiarity with his environment and I think he really likes playing with Vazquez. Brenner and Acosta always have had a good connection, but I think Acosta is the player that benefited the most from Pat Noonan’s coaching.

Noonan looked at film from last year and noticed how often Acosta was being sucked back into the defense trying to help out. In preseason, he told Acosta he wanted him getting into deeper attacking positions and Noonan instructed his teammates to make sure he was getting the ball in spots where he was facing the goal, rather than always having to come back on the ball.

Albright also helped him by solidifying the defensive midfield positions with the signings of Junior Moreno and Obinna Nwobodo. Acosta has six goals and 14 assists, and that trio of attackers has just been really fun to watch. The team bested its all-time scoring record (in MLS) last weekend with its 43rd goal, and Brenner, Vazquez and Acosta have accounted for 30 of those.

MR: Talking about Acosta specifically, how is Cincinnati different when he isn’t playing, as he did for his disciplinary suspension when these two teams last played?

QCP: There just isn’t another player on this roster with Acosta’s creativity. When he was out for three games because of his red card suspension, Alvaro Barreal (a natural winger who doesn’t have a defined role on this team) played as the 10 in two of those, but against the Crew, FCC switched to a 4-2-3-1 with Brenner as the 10 and Yuya Kubo and Barreal as wingers.

Allan Cruz and Obinna Nwobodo played as the defensive midfielders. It was one of FCC’s worst performances in the second half of the season, the only time they were shut out after 13 consecutive games scoring goals. Brenner is the closest player to Acosta in terms of technical skill and touch on the ball, and the thought was that he had been dropping back more in the previous game without Acosta so the coaching staff thought he could fill that role and allow Barreal a chance to get back to his best position on the wing.

Kubo unfortunately just really struggled against Pedro Santos, and the attack just couldn’t find a rhythm. They finished with nine shots, two on goal and the best chance was early on when I think Barreal was right in front of goal and Eloy Room made an incredible save. Fortunately for FC Cincinnati, Acosta is available this time.

MR: Cincinnati is losing one regular name this Saturday in midfielder Obinna Nwobodo. What will Cincinnati miss with him off the field due to yellow card accumulation? Does that become a spot Columbus can exploit?

QCP: Nwobodo has been an underrated signing for FCC. He’s got speed, is great with distribution, he covers a lot of ground and wins a lot of tackles when he’s not getting called for fouls. He’s aggressive and unfortunately that leads to a lot of fouls and yellows (he is out with his eighth yellow). He will definitely be missed, though Lucas Zelarayán actually did a really good job last game reading his tackles.

I would expect Kubo ends up starting in his place. He subbed in for Junior Moreno last game and the only other real option would be Allan Cruz, but he hasn’t been playing at all lately. Haris Medunjanin departed earlier this month on a mutual contract termination so he could be closer to family in Europe.

A lot of teams have been exploiting FCC on the wings this year, especially on the left side of the defense when Barreal has been playing a wingback (he’s just not a great defender), but Columbus will have more options without Nwobodo snuffing out play up the middle. Moreno has been struggling lately as well, so it’s definitely an area of concern for Cincinnati.