New York City FC is ready to return to the Bronx this week for its home opener against FC Cincinnati. In the latest edition of the ‘The Away End’, we spoke to journalist and owner of Queen City Press, Laurel Pfahler about Jaap Stam, new faces, and the best thing to do in Cincinnati.
Hi Laurel, thanks so much for speaking with us. How long have you been covering FC Cincinnati?
First off, thanks for the chance to share my insight into FC Cincinnati. I have been covering the team since the first roster build ahead of its inaugural United Soccer League season in 2016. I previously covered the team as a correspondent for WCPO.com (Channel 9 news in Cincinnati) and for The Athletic. Now I have my own site at
QueenCityPress.net so I can continue covering the team regularly.
What’s been your favorite moment covering the team?
I’m betting anyone who followed FC Cincinnati or covered the team from the beginning would say the U.S. Open Cup run in 2017 when FCC beat the Chicago Fire on penalties in the Round of 16 and made it to the semifinals -- leading New York Red Bulls 2-0 with less than 20 minutes left only to lose 3-2 in extra time. It’s the moment that often is associated with the club’s rise into MLS because of the tremendous support of the fans that was on display to a national audience.
It truly was magical for a club in its second season and aspiring to join MLS. But, if you’re looking for an MLS moment, the inaugural home game in 2019 was pretty special. Thousands of fans joined the march into the stadium to the point outsiders thought the scene was photoshopped, and FCC delivered on their anticipation with a 3-0 win over Portland Timbers.
It’s been rocky ever since but fans long for a feeling like that again as FC Cincinnati opens its new stadium next month.
Looking at the 2021 season, the club made headlines with the signings of Brenner & Lucho Acosta. I appreciate it is still early days, but what have you made of the pair since they joined the team?
There is definitely potential for that to be a really incredible pairing, but I would say right now, their timing is still a little off as they grow more accustomed to how each other play. Acosta has just missed Brenner on some passes where maybe Brenner was expecting the ball somewhere else or just not making the run Acosta thought he would make.
With some time, they should be able to sort that out. The two already are close off the pitch, and Acosta has been instrumental in helping Brenner adapt in a foreign country for the first time in his young career. Acosta is the lone player that speaks Portuguese, so that is helpful for Brenner having his No. 10 be that guy he can really communicate with well.
Speaking of new signings, the team also acquired former NYCFC defender Ronald Matarrita. How has he settled into life with the team?
I thought there was a chance he would be named captain (the armband went to Lucho). It’s clear he gets along really well with his new teammates, and the fans here also seem to have received him well. He fits perfectly into the system with how FC Cincinnati wants to play, with the fullbacks getting high up the pitch and involved in the attack. Matarrita, as I’m sure you guys are familiar, really likes that he has that freedom to move around, and he had the assist on Acosta’s goal Saturday against Nashville so he seems to be settling well into that role early.
Head Coach Jaap Stam had a very successful playing career, but last season saw the team finish bottom of MLS overall. How would you evaluate Stam's first season in charge of the team?
Considering how odd of a first season he experienced and the fact he didn’t get a proper preseason coming in shortly before the MLS is Back Tournament, I think Stam managed things about as well as anyone could have in that situation. He adjusted really well when he realized after one game that the roster he had to work with was not ready to play his preferred system, and that’s when FC Cincinnati switched to a 5-3-2 and really “bunkered down” as people like to say.
It worked to get a couple wins in the MLS is Back Tournament and some draws early on, and then he gradually tried to move back into more of an attacking mindset – it just didn’t go the team’s way when it came to the final scores and the progress wasn’t enough to change the results for the better. From that, Stam knew what he needed for 2021.
From a tactical standpoint, what strengths should Ronny Deila and his team be wary of heading into the game?
Tactically speaking, it’s a team that wants to keep possession, building from the back and utilizing the fullbacks as I mentioned previously, and when FC Cincinnati gets past midfield, the front three of left winger Jurgen Locadia (assuming he’s healthy enough now to start), Brenner and right winger Alvaro Barreal has a lot of potential to cause problems for defenders.
Barreal is mentioned less than Brenner and Locadia, but he’s quick, very good with the ball at his feet and tends to be overlooked. He also pairs well with right back Joe Gyau when Gyau is getting forward and overlapping with him.
Defensive midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo, nicknamed “The General,” has shown he can be very good at directing play and dropping back to cover on the backline when the fullbacks are in the attack.
Are there any weaknesses you think NYCFC can exploit?
Nashville showed that FCC could struggle against physical midfielders, especially if there are size mismatches with 5-foot-3 Lucho Acosta, and the team is vulnerable to counter attacks. The back line is still adapting to new fullbacks, particularly with Gyau switching from a winger spot to right back, where he is still learning the positioning. Nashville often ran its attack on Gyau’s side of the field and ended up with 32 shots, 13 on target and 14 corner kicks. Cincinnati struggled to win 50-50 balls and there was a lot of pressure on that back line.
If you were to identify the team’s danger-man, who would that be?
Acosta. He’s so good on the ball and has had a magic touch early in his time with FCC. His goal against Nashville came when he received the ball from Matarrita, chipped it just over goalkeeper Joe Wilson as he was coming out to try to intercept the play, and then tapped it in. Had it been any other player it would have looked unintentional and like he just missed his first shot and got lucky to be able to finish it, but he’s capable of those kinds of plays. When he’s on his game, he has the ability to make something out of nothing and the opponent is going to have to account for him.
And finally, for any fans thinking of making the trip to the city in the future, are there any particular attractions you’d suggest?
Well, it’s like a rule in Cincinnati to tell any visitor they have to try Skyline Chili. Most outsiders think chili on spaghetti is weird (it’s more like a meaty sauce with a cinnamon spice to it), but you can’t go to Cincinnati and at least try it to say you did. Graeter’s Ice Cream is a tasty treat too. In the summer, King’s Island amusement park is good for entertainment if you’re staying a weekend or making a couple days out of the trip. Over-the-Rhine has some great restaurants and bars and is a short walk from the stadium. Reds games are fun as well if you want to make it a full sports trip.
I also like Montgomery Inn Boathouse on the river for barbecue ribs, and the Bengals have enticed some free agents to sign based on the steaks they ate at Jeff Ruby’s The Precinct – if you’re willing to spend more for a great meal.