By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 29, 2021) US Soccer Players – On the same night that the New England Revolution set a new record for points in an MLS regular season, another club was setting an ignominious mark of its own 900 miles away. FC Cincinnati, the third-year MLS franchise with a sparkling new stadium and an engaged, enthusiastic fan base with which to fill it, fell to Nashville 6-3. That means a third-straight last-place finish in the league’s combined standings.
No one can say anymore that the Wooden Spoon is just visiting Cincinnati. It’s not just taking in the sights and hitting up Skyline Chili for that most cliche of Cincinnati tourist activities. Until proven otherwise, the award no MLS club wants to win is a permanent resident of the Queen City. Please forward all mail for Mr. Wood N. Spoon to TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio.
How did it come to this? How did a proud USL operation with a proven track record of second division success and support passionate enough to push the club into the MLS expansion conversation end up like this? It’s one thing to stumble out the gates in an inaugural MLS campaign. It’s something else altogether to be so bad for three consecutive years that you can’t get off the bottom of the table.
Conventional wisdom has long held that Cincinnati’s initial roster was the major culprit of the club’s trouble. Add to that turnover in key leadership positions, and the difficulties followed the club from one season to another. It wasn’t that Cincinnati didn’t try. Bringing in former Feyenoord coach Jaap Stam was a clear attempt at a reset. It’s that for what are now familiar reasons in this league, it didn’t work.
The pandemic hampered Stam’s ability to adapt to MLS, adding an additional degree of difficulty in a league waiting to return to normal. A defensive-minded approach led to a run of draws in July and into August that turned into losses. Stam exited the club on September 27, with the team winning once since the start of July. What followed was a seven-game losing streak.
Not since the early existence of Toronto FC has one club held so firmly the label of “worst club in MLS”. The difference between Toronto, launched in 2007 during a very different era in the league’s evolution, and Cincinnati is that Cincinnati was already an operating soccer club before it arrived at the top division level in North America. The excuses available to Toronto in its first few seasons don’t exist for FCC.
Toronto made it out of last-place overall in its second season, pulling itself up ever-so-slightly in its first four years in MLS. They didn’t start improving and didn’t become a real playoff contender until it landed the right combination of general manager and head coach. FCC is hoping its next team is the right one.
Cincinnati’s issue isn’t ambition. They rank 10th in MLS in total salary according to the MLSPA’s salary guide, putting it in line with clubs like Columbus, Sporting Kansas City, and Seattle. It’s easy to make that about how the club spends its squad budget, but that overlooks the realities of this league. We’ve got enough examples of clubs spending only to disappoint. This season, Toronto is one of them spending considerably and currently one place ahead of Cincinnati at the bottom of the overall table.
The new era of FC Cincinnati begins in earnest in 2022. Newly hired general manager Chris Albright will execute the latest update to the FC Cincinnati model. Given the situation with MLS parity, there should be hope that a season-to-season change is workable.
It’s that parity that makes FC Cincinnati’s situation so demoralizing. Luck could’ve easily made the difference between finishing somewhere else than the bottom. Add to that Cincinnati winning just once at home this season. Fixing that could easily make the difference.
MLS is known for its significant split between home-and-away results. Until FCC figures out how to win in its own building, it’s unlikely to be moving up.
No team in MLS history had finished dead last in the combined standings for three consecutive seasons before FC Cincinnati came along. It seems impossible that Cincinnati could make it four straight last-place finishes, especially with another new expansion team in Charlotte joining MLS next season. The club has the means, the facilities, and the fan base to do better.
Breaking a cycle of losing is almost as difficult as taking the last step towards a championship. FCC fans may dream of making the playoffs and lifting a trophy. For the moment, they’d just be happy with the Wooden Spoon moving on.
More From Jason Davis:
- After a painful loss, questions get louder for DC United
- Will Saturday help us figure out the Western Conference?
- NYCFC looks for a home advantage
- New England on the way to the Supporters’ Shield
Logo courtesy of FC Cincinnati