Opinion: The Path Forward
Yesterday we learned FC Cincinnati has parted ways with long time head coach Alan Koch. It felt like a somber day, almost an ominous day for the club. It wasn’t. In fact, I’d argue it's the opposite. Understandably, the coach being fired is a weird feeling for the fan base. There are a number of unknowns now. Who will the next head coach be? How will the players respond on the field? How will this impact the tactics on the field? While there are questions that will need to be answered over the next few months, I would argue that there is a great deal to look forward to.
This blog post isn't a retrospective on Koch, you know his story. Taking over for John Harkes on the day the team left for preseason training in 2017. The Open Cup run. The unbeaten run. The goalless run. You know it, I know it. It was glorious. Well, it was glorious if Koch wasn’t your boss from the sounds of it.
This blog post is about the future. Where we go from here, both as a fan base and a club. I want to look at the micro and the macro with this, because I think this is a moment for the club to take the next step towards greatness.
I'll start off small and work my towards the macro view. The micro view is what the team does now on the field. We have a roster, we have an interim manager, and we have games to win right now.
If you weren't paying attention to former players celebrate Koch's firing, you might have seen what current players were saying. Fanendo Adi stepping up to say,
"Obviously, you know, I’m a character that can speak out but you just have to support the coaches as well and try to do what is right. He knows why he plays guys out of position but I think we just need to realize that guys can be played out of position and that affects the team. The identity is missing” [Source].
Earlier, this excerpt caught a lot of people's eye,
"Saief is, however, not a natural central playmaker. He prefers to play out wide — “I’m a winger. That’s my best position. Right, left, I’m a winger.” — because he feels more comfortable attacking from there. FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch has used Saief largely in the hole, though, tasking the 5-foot-11 veteran with pulling the strings in the middle of the park" [Source].
It’s clear these players don’t like being played out of their natural positions. Imagine being hired for a job and then suddenly finding yourself in a different role with different responsibilities. You too would likely build resentment.
So who is being played out of position? Well Saief points out he’s a winger, not a central play maker. Allan Cruz has been deployed as a right winger despite being a box-to-box midfielder his whole career. Leo Bertone is also a central midfielder who has been playing exclusively defensive midfield. Mathieu Deplange has been covering for the injured Greg Garza by playing left back, a position Deplange had never played before coming to Cincinnati. Eric Alexander, hilariously, started as a winger in the season opener despite being a lifelong defensive midfielder.
That’s a lot of guys out of position. And not the only ones.
One thing is true about our roster, if you don’t play people out of position, we don’t have a central play maker. That key number 10. Saief was forced into that role, and well, it didn’t work. It did whatever the opposite of “work” is. But all is not lost. It turns out, you don’t need a number 10 to win a soccer game. Here’s how:
That’s a 4-3-3 that plays without a #10. The setup is very simple. A basic back four is the foundation. The midfield is made up of one destroyer in defensive midfield, and two box-to-box #8s. The attacking three are setup as a striker and two wingers. This system lets you flex the midfield into having five players in defense by bringing the wingers back, and lets you attack with five by sending the box-to-box midfielders forward. (Are these numbers confusing you? Might I recommend the Pride’s podcast “What’s This Soccer Thing’s episode on the numbers)
Now, I’m not going to act like I came up with this system. Here’s a paraphrased description of it:
”The versatile 4-3-3. It allows a swarming engine room in the middle, giving his teams the ability to clog the central channels, generate turnovers and hit with startling immediacy going the other way. With the No. 6 du jour providing the anvil, the swarming No. 8/10 hybrid provides the hammer, smashing up opposition possession and hitting quickly and at pace the other way. Choke off the oxygen in the middle . Utilize that iron lung and harry the ball all over the field for 90 tireless minutes. Press hard and hit fast on counters, breaks and builds limited to the sort of passes with which your comfortable. And finish your chances. And at its best against arguably superior individual competition” [Source].
This is the system Tab Ramos uses. This is the system that FC Cincinnati could and should implement. And Tab Ramos is the man they should hire to be the next manager of the team. Which brings me to the macro.
Jeff Berding, Luke Sassano, and everyone in the technical staff need to be reorganized. It’s time to make some confessions, manage against our weaknesses, and build this club into the best version of itself.
Soccer decisions need to be put in Luke Sassano’s hands. Having met Luke a few times, he is without a doubt the sharpest soccer mind I’ve ever met. He has a great eye for talent, is a good recruiter, and is known and trusted around the country. He helped build a solid roster, and he should be allowed to continue his work this summer. And as the Technical Director, he should have the final say in who manages the first team. I worry that may not be the case.
Jeff Berding is not a soccer guy. I’m not breaking any news here, Jeff has admitted this himself. He’s a savy politician and probably the only person in this city that could have put FC Cincinnati in MLS. Berding is about to build a brand new stadium in Cincinnati. That’s incredible, and nobody thought it would ever happen. Managing all of the different people in getting FC Cincinnati into this league is nothing short of astounding. But Berding should not be evaluating talent. He should not have too much of a say in who the next manager is. In my mind, this is the ideal setup for a soccer club:
Berding has overseen an incredible merchandising strategy, media market penetration, supporter relationships, corporate sponsorships, and the creation of the FC Cincinnati Foundation. That’s a lot on one plate. And he’s great at it. You know what he’s not great at? Deciding if Bertone is explosive enough off the ball to be a more central midfielder and if we might need to bring in reinforcements to cover those inefficiencies (just a hypothetical, not picking on you Leo). You know who is good at those soccer things? Luke Sassano.
With the creation of a new academy, there is a ton of soccer going on right now. That’s why you bring in a Technical Director in the first place. The Technical Director is there to make sure there is continuity between managers. That players who transfer into the club make sense in a much larger picture. They are also making sure the academy teams are playing a particular style that will develop players and be able to easily promote those players into the first team. They’re also grooming coaches who can eventually take over the first team as well. They’re managing scouts if not doing some of the scouting. In short, they are there to make sure the soccer side of the business runs smoothly. Even big teams like Manchester United have suffered whiplash by not having this role, rosters being built and scrapped on the whim of a revolving door of managers. Frankly, it’s how the Bengals are run; with someone at the top who is fundamentally bad at the sport in which they are involved in, and won’t hire someone to make those decisions in his place. Berding has said time and time again that FC Cincinnati is not the Bengals. The Bengals have business people in charge of football. In order to finally break the mold, FC Cincinnati need to put soccer people in charge of soccer.
It’s time to finish the construction of this club into a world class organization. The Technical Director in charge of soccer operations will let soccer people make soccer decisions. It will let Berding focus on what he does best. It will let the players play their best. It will be a great setup for the eventual academy director and the army of youth coaches that will report to the academy director. This, in my opinion, is the way forward.
The future for FC Cincinnati is bright; I am excited. FCC has a chance to finally take that final step and build the organization into its best self. So far the club has made correct decision after correct decision, and I would love for that to continue. With the training center up and running in Milford, it’s the perfect time to make sure the soccer side of this club is running at full capacity with Sassano in charge. Regardless, there isn’t anywhere else to go but up from here, and I fully expect the next manager to find success in the role. This is the process we are placing our trust in.