Will FC Cincinnati carry momentum from first win at TQL Stadium against Atlanta United?
As fans, players and the coaching staff hugged and celebrated, FC Cincinnati head coach Jaap Stam wore the same stoic expression through the post-match afterglow and all the way through his post-match interviews.
As fun as the win was, harsh realities remained about FC Cincinnati's situation: The club remained lodged in 13th place in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference. It expanded its cushion over last-place Toronto to a five-point margin, but the performance was still far from flawless against the last-place team in MLS.
Stam levied some measured criticism for FC Cincinnati's play in the first half of the Toronto win. The criticism was weighed against an equal dose of praise for the manner in which FCC elevated its performance in the second half, but it was still striking – if not refreshing – to hear Stam critique his side amidst the celebrating still carrying on in the stadium post-match.
Similarly, Stam seemed eager to look forward during his Monday news conference ahead of his club's trip to play Wednesday at Atlanta United for a scheduled 7 p.m. kickoff.
“Of course after Toronto, everybody was happy and delighted, and you can celebrate a little bit, but there’s not much time," Stam said. "You need to prepare for the next game and it’s going to be Atlanta.”
While Toronto didn't have much left to play for beyond pride in 2021, Atlanta is the opposite – a late-arriving, hard-charger in the Eastern Conference race for one of seven playoff spots.
Atlanta (7-7-9, 30 points) is one point back of CF Montreal for the seventh and final playoff spot and, under the direction of recently-hired manager Gonzalo Pineda, will be highly motivated on Wednesday to continue a run of impressive form.
Atlanta's won four of its last five matches and looks in some ways like the rampant, trophy-winning "Five Stripes" sides of just a few years ago, Stam suggested.
"It's due to availability of all their quality players and what they're having," Stam said Monday of Atlanta's recent success. "And also, they play in a different way than they've done before and you can see that they have a lot of quality in the team and how they're playing. How they're performing, how they've moving, what they have individually and taking the opportunities going forward. They play differently now under (Pineda) than they did under the previous one. They go back more to a system in how they've been playing for several seasons, several years also before. This is very well-known also to them as well so, yeah, it's gonna be an interesting game again over there."
A win Wednesday for FC Cincinnati would give the club five victories through 23 games, surpassing the output of the 2020 pandemic-shortened, 23-game schedule with 11 matches still to come.
Asked Monday if the club's overarching aims for the 2021 season were still attainable, Stam indicated he was focused on overseeing general progress.
"You try to get the best out of the team and you try to get every game a result," Stam said. "You're looking at progress and that's the most important thing, in seeing progress in how the team is performing and playing to get to a certain, consistent level eventually so that you, on the long term, can have longer and better success. That's how you try to build your way of playing. That's also how you try to build your roster."
Kickoff: 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta
TV/Radio/stream: Star64/ESPN-AM (1530)/fccincinnati.com.
Series info: Atlanta leads the all-time series against FC Cincinnati, 3-1-2.
Cincinnati.com prediction: Atlanta United 3, FC Cincinnati 1.
Record: 4-10-8, 20 points; 13th in Eastern Conference
Goals for: 25
Goals against: 38
Coach: Jaap Stam – second season as FC Cincinnati head coach (8-25-12)
Projected starting lineup:
Przemysław Tytoń, GK
Ronald Matarrita, left back
Gustavo Vallecilla, center back (left)
Geoff Cameron, center back (right)
Nick Hagglund, right back
Yuya Kubo, midfielder
Luciano Acosta, midfielder
Haris Medunjanin, midfielder
Isaac Atanga, midfielder/winger
Alvaro Barreal, winger
Brenner Souza da Silva, forward
Record: 7-7-9, 30 points; eighth in Eastern Conference
Goals for: 28
Goals against 28
Head coach: Gonzalo Pineda - first year as Atlanta head coach
Brad Guzan, goalkeeper
George Campbell, right back
Miles Robinson, center back
Anton Walkes, left back
Brooks Lennon, wing back/midfielder
George Bello, wing back, midfielder
Jake Mulraney, midfielder
Matheus Rossetto, midfielder
Marcelino Moreno, forward
Ezequiel Barco, forward
Josef Martinez, forward
Player to watch: Josef Martinez, Atlanta – Martinez's 83 career goals in 99 MLS appearances demands the attention of every player on the field and every fan in attendance. Martinez also has three goals in three appearances against FC Cincinnati, making him one of Cincinnati's biggest antagonists in FCC's young MLS history.
Noteworthy: FC Cincinnati's Brenner Souza da Silva, who has been criticized at times for his lack of goal scoring in 2021, is knocking on the door of club history. His six goals this season brought him into a second-place tie with Emmanuel Ledesma for tallies in a single season. One more strike and Brenner will join Allan Cruz as FC Cincinnati's joint single-season leader for goals (seven).