CHICAGO — Like most managers, FC Cincinnati head coach Jaap Stam tends to be tight-lipped on matters related to personnel and tactics.
For the personnel side, that hasn’t presented too many question marks when attempting to anticipate Stam’s plans as his starting lineup and substitution patterns have generally been stable and consistent.
However, Cincinnati now finds itself at the tail end of its busiest period of the 2021 season to date, and the time might be right to switch things up for a pivotal match against one of FCC's nearest competitors in the standings.
Saturday’s scheduled 7 p.m. match against Toronto FC at Exploria Stadium in Orlando marks the end of a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday swing of games. FC Cincinnati used Wednesday’s 1-0 victory in Chicago to vault itself out of last place in the MLS standings.
FCC could now solidify its escape from the league's cellar with another win, or even a draw.
Not only did FCC swap out of last place with Chicago, which dropped to the bottom of the standings, but it also passed Toronto in the process. Now, Cincinnati could start to put meaningful distance between itself and the bottom of the league.
That leaves Stam, along with observers of the team, with some interesting questions about whether the club will roll the dice and go with the same core group that defeated Fire FC or lean on depth players to do the job.
"It's going to be an interesting game in terms of coming off the win against Chicago," Stam said during a Friday video-news conference. "Being on the road, still, now in Orlando, arriving (Thursday), trying to get the players back, of course, to their health and how we need to be before the game, to start the game. So, that means get them as fit as possible."
From Saturday’s match against Colorado Rapids to Wednesday’s win at Chicago Fire FC, one change was made to the starting lineup and it was for the re-introduction of the previously-injured Ronald Matarrita.
Stam would likely want to field his first-choice starting lineup against a Toronto team that’s allowed an MLS-high 18 goals, but that might not be in FCC’s long-term interests given the recent busy schedule.
Luckily for Cincinnati, all of MLS is in the same position schedule-wise. Toronto’s had the same scheduling rigors having lost back-to-back matches by 3-2 score lines on Saturday and Wednesday to Orlando City SC and Nashville SC, respectively.
Toronto has formidable attacking pieces that could hurt FC Cincinnati in Alejandro Pozuelo, an MLS Best XI honoree in 2020, along with Jonathan Osorio, the team's leading scorer with three goals.
Ayo Akinola, who played as a lone, target forward against Nashville on Wednesday, has two goals on the season after pushing nine through the net in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Toronto's offense – it has accumulated 12 goals, good for seventh-most in the Eastern Conference – isn't the problem for this team. It's the defending that's let TFC down in 2021.
Quentin Westberg has started in goal the last two matches and conceded six goals.
Toronto's lone win on the season was a 2-0 downing of defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew. That game showed TFC still has the ability to play at a high level and hurt talented teams.
"That team's also in a situation that they need to win games," Stam said. "They've got very good players individually. Very skilled players. They're making it very difficult for every team they're playing against."
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET | Exploria Stadium, Orlando
TV/Radio/stream: WSTR Star64/ESPN1530-AM/fccincinnati.com (ESPN+ for out-of-market stream)
Series info: Toronto FC leads the all-time series against FC Cincinnati, 3-0-0.
Odds: Toronto is a -185 favorite to win, according to BETMGM.com.
Enquirer prediction: FC Cincinnati 2, Toronto FC 2.
Record: 2-5-1, 12th place in Eastern Conference
Goals for: 7
Goals against: 17
Coach: Jaap Stam – second season as FC Cincinnati coach (6-18-5)
Projected starting lineup:
Przemysław Tytoń (GK)
Ronald Matarrita, left back
Geoff Cameron, center back
Gustavo Vallecilla, center back
Caleb Stanko, center back
Joseph-Claude Gyau, right back
Yuya Kubo, midfielder
Luciano Acosta, midfielder
Allan Cruz, midfielder
Jürgen Locadia, forward
Brandon Vazquez, forward
Record: 1-6-1, 13th place in Eastern Conference
Goals for: 12
Goals against: 18
Coach: Chris Armas - first season as Toronto head coach
Projected starting lineup:
Quentin Westberg (GK)
Kemar Lawrence, left back
Chris Mavinga, center back
Eriq Zavaleta, center back
Auro Jr., right back
Marco Delgado, midfielder
Michael Bradley, midfielder
Jonathan Osorio, midfielder
Alejandro Pozuelo, midfielder
Richie Laryea, midfielder
Ayo Akinola, forward
Players to watch: Jürgen Locadia and Franko Kovacevic — Saturday’s game might be the last run out in Orange and Blue for both Locadia and Kovacevic, whose current loan terms at FC Cincinnati conclude on Wednesday.
The past week’s Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday swing of games was expected to serve as a last opportunity for both players to erase any doubt about whether the club should make all necessary efforts to retain their services. However, Locadia’s managed only substitute appearances and two more glaring misses while Kovacevic earned only a short run off the bench against Colorado and didn’t play against Chicago.
For Locadia, if the game is to be his last in Cincinnati, the end of his loan would mark the conclusion of a frustrating albeit interesting 17 months at the club. He brought hype and promise when he arrived on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion of the English Premier League. He’d scored a few goals there but underachieved, and then went out on a short loan spell at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, where he was back in the goals and proving his ability in the German Bundesliga, one of Europe’s elite leagues. And all of this came after Locadia dominated at Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, helping the club to win the Eredevisie league title.
Locadia’s scored three goals at FC Cincinnati. When he’s “on,” he’s a cut above the players around him and has been a chance-creating machine. Unfortunately, the goals simply haven’t come, and that’s why he finds himself in a precarious position entering the final days of his loan period, even as he provided FCC with leadership qualities and a desire to remain at the club when he could have gone elsewhere in mid-pandemic 2020.
For Kovacevic, an appearance on Saturday against Toronto would be just his third for the club since arriving in autumn from Hoffenheim in what was thought to be a move to help jump-start the strategic partnership that FCC and Hoffenheim entered into.
Noteworthy: Toronto FC star Jozy Altidore again isn't expected to play for TFC this weekend. The striker's had a widely-reported falling out at the club. The organization has said all options remain on the table for Altidore, who has been training away from the club since its loss on May 22, but he looks set to miss another match for his team. Altidore is one of the most decorated players in club history since his 2015 arrival to TFC, scoring 59 goals in 127 appearances.