The Richmond Kickers host FC Cincinnati at City Stadium at 7:00 PM EST on Saturday. It is the biggest game in the USL Eastern Conference this weekend. FC Cincinnati enters the weekend in third place with 41 points through 21 games. The fourth-place Kickers trail Cincinnati by only 3 points. The winner will strengthen its grip on a home playoff date while staying in the hunt for the regular season conference title.
Richmond has won 6 consecutive games and passed 4 teams in the standings since losing to the Charleston Battery on July 2. The Kickers have been sparked by the play of Japanese midfielder Yudai Imura, who has tallied 6 goals and 2 assists during the streak.
Cincinnati has held the third spot in the USL East for most of the season. The Orange & Blue are going to have to be road warriors in August, a month in which Cincinnati only plays one match at home. The month got off to a good start with a win at FC Montreal last Wednesday.
The first meeting between these two clubs ended in a 1-1 draw in Cincinnati on June 4. Sean Okoli gave the home side an early lead, but Hugh Roberts equalized in stoppage time.
To preview the second and final 2016 regular season matchup between Cincinnati and Richmond, Scratching the Pitch reached out to Bryan Weigel of Cincinnati Soccer Talk and Matt Myers of RVA is Red. The lads answer questions with insight and provide their predictions.
This will be Cincinnati’s first game in more than a week. Will the rest be beneficial, or will rust have accumulated?
Bryan Weigel: Well, I hope it is beneficial. FC Cincinnati had a busy July, playing 6 USL matches and an additional friendly. Naturally bumps, bruises and sprains piled up, and the long layoff should give these players extra time to heal. FC Cincinnati will hope to get midfielder/defender Paul Nicholson, midfielder Kenney Walker, and others back to full fitness for the playoff push ahead.
The Kickers had as many losses as wins heading into the last match against Cincinnati. Now the club has ridden a six-game winning streak to an 11-6-5 record. What has been the difference between the first part of the season and the last six matches?
Matt Myers: So during the dark times of the season, the Kickers couldn’t score. The defense was always rock solid, but having own goal being your joint leading scorer halfway through the season is going to make it difficult to be successful.
Going into the winning streak, Leigh [Cowlishaw] started looking at some different combinations. Anthony Grant became a consistent starter as a lone striker, and Sunny Jane has become a regular in an advanced midfield role. For me, Sunny in particular has changed the feel for the attack, as he is not afraid to run directly at defenses. It’s something that was lacking in the center of the field previously, and is in turn opening up space for others as well.
Beyond those two, Miguel Aguilar has become a consistent presence on loan, and (surprise! surprise!) he’s performed a lot better. It’s almost like getting time with teammates makes you fit in better or something! Samuel Asante has usually been his counterpart on the other wing as opposed to his defensive midfield spot that he’d been in for most of the last two years.
It’s finding this group that clicks together that has made the biggest difference. Those four plus Yudai Imura and one of Callahan or Owusu in the middle have made for a dynamic group that’s (finally) scoring while not really giving anything up on the defensive side either. Having guys like Brian Ownby coming off the bench is certainly a luxury too.
Losing a late lead, like Cincinnati did against Richmond in the first match, has not been an uncommon occurrence for the Orange & Blue. What seems to be the problem?
BW: FC Cincinnati dropped points in the waning moments at Charleston (L) and in home matches vs.Richmond (D), New York (L) and Charleston (D). They nearly let leads slip away at Bethlehem and had a brief scare vs. Saint Louis FC before the final whistle. Several of these matches have seen failures in possession by an FC Cincinnati midfield or a defender slow to close on an attacking player.
One note has been a perceived lack of knowledge of defensive roles or player switches displayed by subs. In several matches including the most recent home match vs. Charleston, there were several times when two FCC defenders went with one player leaving another wide open. Several players have returned from injury and are still getting up to speed on the pitch. Luckily our back four has been playing better as a unit and I would expect more of that moving forward.
Richmond’s winning streak has been concurrent with Yudai Imura lighting up the net. What has been the key to getting him going again after a hot start to the season?
MM: Yudai has been a fan favorite in Richmond since essentially day one. He’s a character to say the least, and always has a smile on his face. Unfortunately, injuries slowed him down a lot last year, and nabbed him in the first Charlotte game this season after he scored in three of the first four games.
Once he was back, and then moved a little deeper in the midfield, he started to find his groove. He’s got a knack for finding loose balls, and obviously there will be more opportunities when he plays deeper than when he’s tucked under the striker. He’s also shown a cool head under pressure, converting three penalties as well as the free kick last week against Rochester. He’s getting a lot of the accolades right now, and he totally deserves them, but the winning streak is far from a situation where it’s simply Imura carrying the entire team on his back.
The other major difference for Yudai, and this is pure conjecture, but at the same time I’m really confident in my assessment, is that he’s far more comfortable and confident in who he is this year. Last year, he barely spoke any English. This year he can communicate much better. Last year, he was slight. This year, he’s visibly bigger (still not huge or anything) and he plays so much more aggressively. I don’t think that’s surprising though for an international player coming to a new culture with a new language. One is hard enough to overcome, I can’t imagine having to do both.
Sean Okoli is among the league-leaders in goal scoring, but what other player could have a big impact against Richmond?
BW: “Ugo” Okoli is one of the league leaders in scoring (11) and seems to be in good form coming off a brace in Montreal. The great thing about Cincinnati is that they are not reliant on one individual to score.
With different formations available at Harkes’ disposal, you could see wingers Jimmy McLaughlin (4) or Omar Cummings (3) have an impact. If FCC needs to exploit the middle, a formation change could allow midfielders Eric Stevenson (3) or Andrew Wiedeman (4) to create with their feet. FC Cincinnati is versatile, but if I could pick just one of these players to specifically watch for, it would be Cummings who has 5 assists to go with his goals.
Apart from Imura, who do you expect to have the biggest impact on the match this Saturday?
MM: I think the biggest impact will have to come from Hugh Roberts. FCC has a big, strong striker in Sean Okoli, and based on the bits and pieces I watch of them, FCC seems to struggle to create when he’s not seeing the ball where he wants it. Hugh is a guy who won’t back down from a physical battle. He’s really stepped it up to the next level this year, and whether it is the always reliable William Yomby next to him, or US U-17 national team captain Chris Durkin, Hugh Roberts is the guy who’s been the cornerstone of the best defense in the East this year.
How do you think John Harkes will approach this match from a tactical perspective?
BW: That is the million dollar question. Harkes has not utilized a consistent starting XI during the second half of the season.
To begin the year FCC used a defensive 4-2- 3-1 formation, but have recently changed to a more offensive 4-1- 4-1. I personally like a 4-1- 4-1 since it allows one additional attacking player to hold possession. Using that formation does strap Harkes a bit on his subs since he has one less attacking player to sub in, but the addition of Walker back into the 18 could alleviate that somewhat.
In the first match in Cincinnati, the Kickers seemed to lack aggression until late in the match. Has that been the preferred style of play all season, and do you expect to see similar tactics in the rematch in Richmond?
MM: I don’t think the game will look the same. There’s always been a difference in how Cowlishaw teams play on the road and at home, going back 17 seasons at this point. That’s not to say that it’s going to be guns blazing going forward by any means, though.
You have to consider game states and how the season was progressing at that time. The Kickers weren’t in a great spot in early June, and even though they were behind, pushing forward in numbers didn’t play to their strengths, so they didn’t until the final minutes.
Now, this is a much more confident team that has found a rhythm and understanding with one another in the attack. I’d expect to see a far more balanced game, but won’t be shocked if FCC wins the possession battle by any means. I also wouldn’t necessarily be concerned by it either.
What is your prediction for the outcome of the match?
MM: This is a tough one to predict. I definitely don’t think the Kickers are losing. I’ll go ahead and say that it will be tied up late in the game and the Kickers will work their magic once again and extend the win streak to 7.
Also, given that I’m writing this on a Tuesday, there’s no chance I’m predicting who will play in goal for the Kickers this weekend, because that is the true fool’s bet in USL this season. Six have seen time already, and three others have been on the bench so far. It’s a bizarre combination of comical and horrifying.
BW: Harrison Delbridge returns from suspension for Saturday’s match in Richmond. If Kenney Walker is healthy, Harkes could have his preferred starting XI available for the first time all season. Richmond found FCC hard to break down in their first meeting and with the addition of Austin Berry to the back four that should make things more difficult for the Kickers. Due to the additional layoff and the defensive prowess of Richmond, I am predicting 1-0 win for FC Cincinnati. FC Cincinnati has created many chances, but will need to execute a higher finish rate if they are to top the USL Eastern Conference.