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With their last win dating back to May 11, FC Cincinnati fans have been desperate for something to celebrate as the summer heats up. The performances haven’t always been as poor as their last-place position in the Eastern Conference might suggest, but a lack of purchase going forward has largely prevented the side from being competitive throughout their inaugural season.
Saturday’s home match against the Houston Dynamo was an entirely different story, as the Orange and Blue put away multiple goals for just the fifth time and could have added several more if not for a few instances of sloppy finishing.
The opening stanza featured some of the most impressive sequences of play we’ve seen from the team this season, and finishes from Kekuta Manneh and Rashawn Dally had them cruising at the intermission. A third goal with roughly a half hour to play sealed the deal, as Cincy dropped off late in the second half and were able to withstand a valiant comeback effort to hang on for a 3-2 win, their first three points in nearly two months. They’ve had to deal with a number of absences in recent weeks due to suspensions, injuries, and international duty, but key contributors Kendall Waston, Leonardo Bertone, and Allan Cruz all made returns and played key roles in securing the result.
There were bright spots all around for a team desperate to regain its footing in year one in the top flight. Manneh pushed his tally to a team-leading three goals, while Dally scored his first-ever MLS goal and Victor Ulloa found the back of the net for the first time this season. Cruz, who just returned from the Gold Cup with Costa Rica, was a force in midfield and Emmanuel Ledesma secured a place in the MLS Team of the Week with two assists on the night.
So what exactly clicked for the Orange and Blue, particularly in the first half?
Urgency & precision in midfield
The match began with both sides flying into challenges, and it quickly became evident that whoever would be able to slow things down and control play would come out on top. Yoann Damet’s men were able to get a foothold in the center of the park and went on to complete an impressive 85 percent of passes in the first half.
Much of their success was due to the play of Cruz in the base of midfield in Damet’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Cruz returned to his natural position and offered a resounding statement for why he should suit up in that spot each and every week. The interim manager was very pleased with the performance and how Cruz helped the side play higher up the field.
“We know what Allan can provide us,” Damet said. “We wanted to defend forward more. I think we have been allowing too much space, give too much time to the opponents. The idea was to change the mindset and be more aggressive defensively. I think Allan brings that mentality and brings also a performance on the field. I am very pleased with what he showed on the field.”
With tenacious pressing and the ability to pick the right moments to go forward, Cruz’s work allowed his partner in crime Leonardo Bertone to do what he does best — namely to serve as the team’s metronome and touch the ball as many times as possible. This recipe worked to great effect, as Bertone led the team in touches (73) and passes (67) and was second in passing accuracy at 91 percent.
Higher lines & cutting off the supply to Houston’s frontmen
Houston’s attacking talents of Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas have a combined 14 goals and 11 assists, and they can burn any defense in the league when given time and space to operate. On Saturday, Cincy did well to prevent the Dynamo’s midfielders from getting their heads up to supply the electric Honduran and Colombian, neither of whom was able to get on the scoresheet. Dispossessing the Dynamo on 11 occasions — compared to just four forced giveaways of their own — was ultimately the story of the night.
Cincinnati’s midfield triangle of Cruz, Bertone, and Frankie Amaya combined quite successfully before Amaya was forced to make way at the half after suffering a knock. Once again, Cruz was at the heartbeat of everything the team did well by quickly closing down opponents in the middle third, and his six tackles were more than any player on the field.
Damet’s plan to push the lines higher up the field allowed Cruz to replicate the kind of performances we’ve seen him put in for his home nation. His takeaway in the center circle allowed Ledesma to find a streaking Manneh for the game’s opening goal.
The win over Houston initiated a stretch of three of four matches taking place at Nippert Stadium. Cincinnati have a golden opportunity to build off this momentum, and the midfield tandem of Bertone and Cruz will likely have a large say in their attempt to turn around their season.