By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Oct 17, 2018) US Soccer Players - FC Cincinnati isn’t going to wait around for permission to get started on preparing for their first MLS season. Never mind that the club is in the midst of a historic second-division campaign with the USL playoffs yet to come or that they won’t officially be on the infamous MLS allocation order until the second week of December. With the timeline to the club’s launch compressed after the league’s May 29 announcement that FCC will join the league in 2019, there’s no reason to dally.
If it’s possible to have two primary areas of focus, FC Cincinnati is an example of the phenomenon in action. First things first: Securing a USL championship in 2018 ahead of the move to the top division next spring.
In the just-completed USL regular season, FC Cincinnati was nearly unbeatable. The club didn’t lose a game from May 26 through to the end of the 34-game schedule, a run of 23 matches. The 77 points FCC accumulated earned them the top spot in the league before the end of September. In the end, the gap between Cincinnati and the 2nd-place finisher was 11 points.
Earning the top spot means a date with the 8th-seed in the Eastern Conference and the right to play at home for the entirety of the postseason. Playing at home is obviously a huge advantage for the club that set more attendance records in 2018. FCC averaged a whopping 25,000 fans per game at Nippert Stadium this season, besting last year’s eye-popping number by more than 3700.
Last year’s USL champion Louisville City rode its home field advantage to a title, winning four games in four weeks. That’s the task for Cincinnati this season if they want to go out champions of the second division The USL playoff structure is single-elimination, with the championship clash taking place at the finalist with the highest regular season point total.
While they’ll be favorites at home against 8th-seeded Nashville SC, it's worth noting that the first-year USL club from Tennessee drew FCC three in all three matches the two played in 2018. Gary Smith’s team has a knack for making life difficult for Alan Koch and FC Cincinnati.
Koch is the man tapped to lead FCC into MLS in 2019. The club already made that decision, an interesting one considering the track record for coaches who move up from the lower divisions into MLS. The last to attempt it was Orlando City’s Adrian Heath, who lasted just a year-and-a-half with the MLS version of the club. Heath’s record in USL was excellent and included a championship in 2013, City's penultimate year in the second division.
If Koch has any advantages over Heath, they relate to Cincinnati’s aggressive approach to roster-building for the inaugural MLS season even while the USL campaign is ongoing. The second area of primary focus for club president Jeff Berding and his staff is acquiring MLS-level talent as early as possible, the better to get a jump on 2019 by integrating those players now.
Cincinnati scored a pair of coups when the club acquired DP striker Fanendo Adi from Portland and midfielder Fatai Alashe from San Jose back in early August. Both players had high-profile disagreements with their head coaches over playing time. FCC pounced to secure them both for MLS in 2019 as well as for the balance of the 2018 season.
Reports that the team also made an MLS-squashed move for US international Fabian Johnson raised the bar further. Whether or not the league’s reason for preventing Cincinnati from acquired the Gladbach winger made sense, the mere fact that the FCC’s owners were willing to foot the bill for a player of his caliber while still playing in the second division shows eye-popping ambition.
It would be easy for the Lindners and the FCC leadership to lean on the built-in fanbase already committed to the club and slowly build to a more ambitious stance one the West End stadium is open. Something akin to Minnesota United’s current path.
That's now what is happening in Cincinnati. Give credit to FCC for searching out the partners, but it helps when the massive support from fans pushes companies like Mercy Health to sign on as shirt sponsors at a level close to what Atlanta United brings in from American Family Insurance. The Lindners and their fellow investors can justify dropping $35m on a top-level training facility because the corporate support is following the enthusiasm of the fans.
There's already a rabid fanbase that the club can show off ahead of their first MLS season. There's a brand new training facility. There's the promise of a state-of-the-art stadium which, if it ends up looking like the renderings, will be one of the most visually impressive in the hemisphere.
FC Cincinnati doesn’t have to spend at top end MLS levels to attract quality players. It’s hard to imagine the team will spend at the level of Atlanta or LAFC, but they probably don’t need to. There’s a way to put a competitive team on the field in year one that won’t break the bank. Being creative and working ahead will likely serve Koch and the on-field product well.
Though the club is in just its third season, FC Cincinnati already has an identity. The burgeoning culture around the team driven largely by the fans, but augmented by the club’s personnel choices is a major asset. Cultivating that culture is good for business and potentially good for results. The choice to retain Koch speaks to a desire to connect the USL existence of FC Cincinnati with the MLS future of the club. It may seem an obvious choice, but not all of Major League Soccer’s “promoted” clubs have managed to keep their identities intact while also succeeding on the field.
There’s business left for FCC in 2018. Winning a USL championship will give the club even more momentum into a season when they expect to sell 25,000 season tickets and draw more than 30,000 fans a game. The path is clear to a title if Koch’s team can just keep doing what they’ve done for the last five months.
America’s latest soccer success story doesn’t see playing to win now in USL and planning for MLS as in conflict with one another. The playoffs are a gauntlet. Even the big crowds and aggressive roster-building won’t guarantee a good expansion season. Right now, it’s difficult to see FC Cincinnati as anything but on the right path.
More From Jason Davis:
- Canada and the Nations League
- Enough with the Uniteds
- Predicting the knockout round
- Reggie Cannon and Ben Sweat take different routes to a USMNT call
Logo courtesy of FC Cincinnati