24 Thoughts: The struggles of FC Cincinnati and catching up with Jozy Altidore

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Doug McIntyre
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Montreal Impact's Orji Okwonkwo, left, challenges FC Cincinnati's Greg Garza during the second half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)
It hasn't been an easy debut MLS campaign for Greg Garza (right) and FC Cincinnati. (AP)

Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

Just three games remain in FC Cincinnati’s maiden season in MLS, and for all the success that recent expansion teams have had over the last few years — Atlanta United won MLS Cup in its second season while LAFC needs eight points from its final four matches to set a new league record in its sophomore campaign — FCC will be glad when it’s done.

For while Cincy has been a smash hit off the field, averaging close to 28,000 fans per (only Atlanta and Seattle have drawn better), the club has been a tire fire on it.

FCC was first club eliminated from the playoffs. It’s on its third coach this year, Dutchman Ron Jans, who replaced interim boss and former Alan Koch deputy Yoann Damet last month. Including Wednesday’s 2-0 home loss to Atlanta, Cincinnati has one win and nine losses over its last 11 outings.

The draw came against Ohio rival Columbus in Jans’ debut, which provided some optimism. “But then you come back to the same situation with losses, disappointment, and a team that mentally is very fragile, sometimes even in despair,” Jans told Yahoo Sports after his first victory, a 1-0 decision in Montreal.

“They lost a lot. They’re bottom of the table. I know that a lot of players — and this is the biggest thing — don’t know if they fit into the future of the club.”

24 Thoughts

1. Changes are in the cards for next season, no question. But Jans sure made it sound like he won’t have a ton of input on the looming personnel decisions, with those duties falling instead to general manager and fellow Dutchman Gerard Nijkamp. “That’s up to the club and not to the coach,” Jans said.

2. One player who will definitely be back in Cincy next season is U.S. men’s national team defender Greg Garza. Garza is under contract with a club option for 2021. He was a key figure in Atlanta’s run to the title last year after missing most of 2018 through injury, but this season has been more of the same, with the 28-year-old left back limited to just 638 minutes. On and off the field, Cincinnati has missed him mightily.

3. Garza hurt a quad training with the USMNT in January, strained his right calf muscle trying to get back quickly for his club, then tore his left calf on the eve of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, ruling him out of the regional championship.

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4. “It’s been a frustrating season for sure,” said Garza, who had failed to make the playoffs just once before in eight professional seasons in MLS and Liga MX. “Then there’s also the frustration of really not being able to get up to speed health-wise. I think playing as many games as I did at the end of the season last year with Atlanta, and then going right into January camp and just not having the time off that I probably needed probably played a huge factor in that.”

5. The losing has been tough, but juxtaposed with his success in Atlanta, the transition to Cincinnati has been even harder. Garza still texts regularly with former United teammates such as Darlington Nagbe and Michael Parkhurst. Settling in another new city has been an adjustment too for the well-traveled Garza and his Brazilian wife, but they like it.

6. “It’s great. It’s the midwest so it’s maybe not as diverse as Atlanta, but the support for the club has been absolutely fantastic, so nothing to complain about there,” he said. “We’re at the bottom of the table and we’re still getting 25-30,000 fans a game. The support is there and I think I think that now it’s just about doing the right things within the organization and hopefully we can get this thing turned around next year.”

7. Jans was all smiles after the win in Montreal, but it’s been a difficult transition for him, too. “I have never been bottom of the table in my life,” he said. “I don’t want to get used to that next season.” Still, the former Groningen, Heerenveen, Standard Liege and PEC Zwolle manager is happy to be back on the sideline after spending the last two years as Groningen’s sporting director. “I did my job and I tried to do it as good as possible, but I enjoy so much to be back on the training field again with the staff and with the players,” he said, adding that coaching in MLS is “not so much different” than in the Dutch Eredivisie.

8. The truth is that FCC was lucky to get that win north of the border. The hapless Impact — who also lost in Cincy in May and are about to miss the postseason for the third consecutive year — certainly didn’t deserve to get anything out of the game, but referee Ramy Touchan and video assistant David Barrie inexplicably missed a “clear and obvious” late penalty when Joe Gyau took down Bacary Sagna:

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9. This is not the first time this season that VAR has failed miserably. A day after the Montreal-Cincinnati game, officials decided not to award what replays appeared to show was a clear goal for D.C. United in Portland. Now, MLS isn’t the only competition that has had issues with VAR. We’re seeing it in the Premier League, which is using the review system for the first time this season. We saw it over the summer at the Copa America and Women’s World Cup. Yet MLS seems to be regressing even though it was a pioneer in the field when in introduced VAR halfway during the 2017 season. It needs to improve.

10. One counterintuitive reason why NYCFC has been so good this year? The subtraction of World Cup winner David Villa. Villa was lights-out in the Big Apple, scoring 77 goals in 117 MLS games between 2015-18. The Spaniard was a class act off the field, endearing himself to fans and media members. But a well-placed source told me recently that Villa was not on speaking terms with coach Dome Torrent by the end of last season, and that that rift with his compatriot upset the dressing room, where Villa’s status made him revered.

11. Had a nice chat with Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore after Wednesday’s Canadian Cup final first leg at Stade Saputo. The Reds head back home for the decider trailing 1-0 after Nacho Piatti won the Impact the opener. First, TFC must travel to LAFC on Saturday. “That’s gonna be a great test against a good team but obviously next Wednesday is going to be [the priority],” Altidore said.

12. That might not have been the case six weeks ago, when the Reds were in danger of missing the playoffs. After going seven games unbeaten in the league, they’re now seven points clear of eighth-place Montreal.

Sep 18, 2019; Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti (10) collides with Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) during the second half in the Canadian Championship final at Stade Saputo. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Jozy Altidore (top) and Toronto FC are still in good shape in the Canadian Cup final despite losing the first leg. (USA Today)

13. TFC have won the last four Canadian championships, and seem well-positioned to make it five despite losing the first match. Altidore isn’t taking anything for granted. “It’s only a goal but if they score one we need three,” he said. “We have to be careful. They’re dangerous team on the counter. It’s a game that’s designed for them now.”

14. The 29-year-old U.S. national team veteran stayed with TFC for the last international break, but he’s hoping play for his country next month in his club stadium: The USMNT and Canada will meet in a CONCACAF Nations League contest at BMO Field on Oct. 15.

15. “It’ll be a cool day if it happens,” Altidore said. “I’m obviously excited for that, for the team just in general, coming to a great city. They’re going to enjoy their time here. If I’m not playing, I’ll definitely be at the game watching.”

16. Altidore didn’t see the U.S.’s Sept. 6 debacle against Mexico, but he did watch the 1-1 draw against Uruguay four days later. His thoughts? “There are a lot of guys [U.S. coach Gregg] Berhalter would like to use that aren’t there,” he said. “Tyler Adams is one of them that I think would make the team a little different. But I liked Jordan [Morris] on the wing, and Josh Sargent looked so comfortable. I think it’s a stepping-stone. It’s a marathon and not a sprint with the national team.”

17. Before Altidore signed a new contract this spring, he had reportedly drawn interest from teams in France, Italy and Mexico. But Altidore is so happy in Canada that he’s considering settling there permanently, joking that he’s trying to sell his fiancee — tennis star Sloane Stephens — on the city over her preference, Los Angeles. Altidore is also mulling whether to apply for Canadian citizenship, for which he became eligible earlier this year.

18. I was curious about former New York Red Bulls and current UEFA Champions League coach Jesse Marsch’s take on the national team when we caught up last week. Specifically, I wanted to hear his thoughts on instilling a system at the international level. I wasn’t sure he’d answer on the record — Marsch, a former U.S. assistant coach under Bob Bradley, wasn’t considered for the job — but he didn’t hesitate.

19. “Look, Gregg’s a passionate guy who works hard and he has strong beliefs in the way he likes his teams to play. Those are important things as a coach. I think those are all assets,” Marsch said. “In the end, it’ll be how much can this group of players, with limited time, adapt and grow into what you want them to become. I went through that when I was Bob’s assistant. And at the end of four years, I think Bob really pushed that group and made that team very, very good.

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA - SEPTEMBER 17: Head Coach Jesse Marsh of Salzburg reacts during the Group E UEFA Champions  League match between Red Bull Salzburg and KRC Genk at Red Bull Arena on September 17, 2019 in Salzburg, Austria. (Photo by Michael Molzar/SEPA.Media /Getty Images)
RB Salzburg coach Jesse Marsch shared his thoughts on Gregg Berhalter's work with the USMNT. (Getty)

“That’s always the challenge,” he added. “I don’t have the answers to what’s the best thing for Gregg. I’m sure he’s in most every day trying to figure out all those little details. But certainly from afar I’ve watched the national team, it’s such a big important team in our country and our sport, and the better they do, the better I think it is for everyone. I hope they continue to find a way to get better and better and by the World Cup are ready to push the envelope again.”

20. Longtime U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn officially left his post last week after two decades. This is not a knock on Berhalter, but I remember being told that Flynn used to insist that any domestic coach considered for the national team job had to have won an MLS Cup.

21. Obviously that changed somewhere along the way. Berhalter reached the 2015 final with Columbus but lost it to the Portland Timbers. Oscar Pareja, the only other MLS coach to interview for the position, never reached the final during his time with FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids.

22. We’ve reported on the Chicago Fire’s possible rebrand in this space on multiple occasions this season, and it’s worth revisiting after last week’s announcement that unpopular former owner Andrew Hauptman had sold his majority stake in the club to minority owner Joe Mansueto. Reading between the lines in this Q&A with The Athletic’s Guillermo Rivera, it sounds like Mansueto will keep the name but tweak the logo.

23. I think that would be a mistake. As some know, the origins of this column come from hockey. When the Fire logo was designed over 20 years ago, the idea was for it be as iconic as the marks of the NHL’s “Original Six” clubs. That’s a high bar, but two decades later it still looks the part. Here’s hoping it remains.

24. My understanding is that after honoring Rapids captain Tim Howard for his record-setting USMNT career in his native New Jersey before U.S.-Mexico, the federation wanted to do the same for fellow living legend DaMarcus Beasley in St. Louis but couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict. Look for Beasley (and other former national team stars on both the men’s and women’s side) to get the treatment at future matches.

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