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FC Cincinnati’s Jaap Stam, Andrew Gutman talk defensive improvements, upcoming Chicago Fire match

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FC Cincinnati beat reporter Pat Brennan converses with Kamohelo Mokotjo, formerly of Brentford FC, on signing for Cincinnati.

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In the midst of a Major League Soccer single-season record for goals conceded (75), FC Cincinnati only tallied five shutouts in 2019. 

The 2020 season has been a different story in many aspects, but FCC’s defending has been one of the more notable areas of improvement as the club (2-3-1) prepares to play at Chicago Fire on Tuesday at Soldier Field.   

FC Cincinnati’s logged shutouts in each of the last three matches that counted toward the regular-season standings, including Friday’s scoreless draw with D.C. United at Nippert Stadium.

The three consecutive shutouts is an MLS “first” for FCC.

Group stage wins at the MLS Is Back Tournament also produced clean sheets against Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls.

The only goal Cincinnati’s conceded in the last 360 minutes of competitive play was against the Portland Timbers in the Round of 16 at MLS Is Back. 

Portland would go on to advance past FC Cincinnati via penalty kicks and later win MLS Is Back. 

“I think we’ve come a long way,” left back Andrew Gutman said during a Sunday video-conference call. “Obviously, last year we leaked a lot of goals but I wouldn’t say it’s just our back line. I think our back line, midfield and forwards are connected a lot more.”

Part of the credit for Cincinnati’s ability to keep opponents out of its net goes to goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton. He’s saved all eight of the on-target shots he’s faced during the Atlanta, New York and United matches. 

Tyton’s personal shutout streak, which dates back to the MLS Is Back opener against Columbus Crew SC, is 300 minutes. 

The team’s defensive tactics and execution are also part of what’s working right now.

Cincinnati’s worked out of 5-3-2 and 4-3-3 formations since the arrival of Jaap Stam as head coach. Between those two formations, some matches have skewed one way or the other but against D.C., both looks were utilized. 

Stam’s group has a clear grasp of how to play in both situations.

That’s a kind of flexibility and reliability that was missed in 2019 and the pre-pandemic days of the 2020 season.

“The spaces in between lines aren’t as big, which allows us to close down defenders a lot quicker. And, you know, we’re playing more as a unit. If one guy moves, the whole team shifts with them. We’re not playing individually like last year. A lot of times, people were getting caught out because we weren’t totally on the same page and I think this year we’re more compact. We’re understanding each other’s movements and what the goal is each game. We’re getting better results because of it.”

The confidence in the team’s ability to defend is now surface-level and there for all to see. 

There’s an expectation of a solid defensive performance instead of hoping.

“I think they’ve done very well,” Stam said in post-match remarks on Friday. “We are asking a lot of them defensively as well. You see us, we are working with the player. You need to sprint back into position. Because otherwise if you’re not doing it, it becomes very difficult. You don’t want to give away opportunities. You don’t want to give away chances. Defensively, in our shape, we’ve done okay. We could’ve done better, I think, first half, but second half we did a lot better, which was very good. Very promising. On the ball, offensively we did a lot better as well. I am happy with that. I am happy in general with the result. Performance-wise, we are happy about certain things and, of course, things have to get better. It’s football.”

• FC Cincinnati’s upcoming schedule is a bit congested with six matches to be played between Friday and Sept. 12. That’s about twice as many games as the club would typically play in that span of time – and this span is just Phase One of three planned phases as MLS attempts to complete a 23-match regular season.

As such, the strain on the roster could present a challenge along the way. Some might say that’s inevitable, but FC Cincinnati’s not sweating it yet. 

Speaking during the video-conference call with reporters Sunday, Stam said there’s no added stress and that workloads can be managed.

“We need to work well with the team,” Stam said. “If you’re talking together with the workload, you need to look at the individual players in how to assess them and they need to put their work in. The team in general as well during training sessions in a way that it matters and that we improve. With a couple of days between games you can say, yeah, there’s not a lot of time for working in your shape and putting attention to certain details but we’re still trying to do that, and hopefully we can show that in games.” 

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