When last we saw FC Cincinnati in October, the Orange and Blue walked off the Al Lang Stadium pitch in St. Petersburg, Fla., dejected after being bounced from the USL playoffs at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 3-0.
In just its second season, FCC had made a deep run to the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, knocking off two Major League Soccer sides in front of raucous crowds at Nippert Stadium. That high lost a bit of luster with a slump of sorts down the stretch of the USL season. The club finished sixth in the Eastern Conference and was eliminated in the conference quarterfinals for the second straight season.
Just days later, President and General Manager Jeff Berding announced a forthcoming major overhaul of FCC’s roster, sending coach Alan Koch on a plane across the country and around the world on a scouting mission. Berding delivered on his promise, with 15 new signings in the offseason. Koch told Cincinnati Soccer Talk during Monday’s live podcast that he sorted through thousands of profiles, then visited each potential signing personally, searching for the right character before the club offered a contract. There still might be a few signings ahead, Koch said.
“The group we’ve assembled is an absolute vision,” Koch told CST. “We took stock with what we had last year — what we liked and what we didn’t like. We retained players that we were very, very happy to continue to work with.”
That of course meant some departures — 17 of them, to be exact. The most notable were fan favorites. Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt is with Major League Soccer side Atlanta United. Defender Harrison Delbridge moved home to play in Australia. And Cincinnati native and two-year captain Austin Berry moved to the technical staff.
The roster makeover and FCC’s MLS expansion bid captured headlines in the offseason. Many supporters still might be holding their breath awaiting the club’s expansion fate. But as an organization, FCC’s focus is on its third season in the USL. Preseason workouts begin today.
Some of the signings drew a lot of attention, with three North American Soccer League Best XI additions — Emmanuel Ledesma, Lance Laing, and after much speculation, Nazmi Albadawi on Monday. Supporters might suddenly have visions of hoisting the USL Cup after watching archrival Louisville do it in November. But one thing at a time for the club itself, Koch warns.
“I have to be a realist, and I focus on the process,” Koch said. “And (now that’s) get through the preseason. … And when the season starts, we go one game at a time. If I’m talking about trophies in January, to be honest, I think that’s quite foolish. I allow my fans to dream, because that’s the beauty of the game.”
In addition to Ledesma, Laing, and Alabdawi, FCC pulled former Crew forward Tommy Heinemann and Tyler Gibson from the NASL Soccer Bowl champion San Francisco Deltas. Emery Welshman also signed — a rare bright spot for struggling Puerto Rico FC last season, scoring 25 percent of the team’s goals. Welshman is formerly of MLS side Real Salt Lake. Berding’s public aim this time last year was for 62 goals. Though FCC fell well short of that in 2017, that mark is definitely attainable this year.
Defensive additions include Forest Lasso, from USL rival Charleston, and two international players. Israeli native Dekel Keinan played in the Israeli Premier League, and Paddy Barrett has UEFA Champions League and Europa League experience from his native Ireland. There will also be a fight for the starting goalkeeper spot. Spencer Richey is on loan from the Vancouver Whitecaps, and Evan Newton signed from the Sacramento Republic.
The new players join nine returnees — Matt Bahner, Garrett Halfhill, Justin Hoyte, Sem de Wit, Josu, Kenny Walker, Corben Bone, Jimmy McLaughlin and Danni Konig. Only Walker, Bone and McLaughlin remain from the inaugural season.
Koch is optimistic about how well the returnees and additions will mesh together.
“I think we all know there’s a lot of depth in this group now, so not everybody’s going to play,” he said. “And that’s where the character is huge. We want the guys who have the character to come out and fight every day to get the job, but then also have the understanding that when somebody else gets the chance to play, that you’re going to have to go out there and support them. We’re only going to be as good as the collective.”
Koch has many formation and lineup projection options to consider. The first task, he said, is figuring out whether the back line will have three or four players.
“Once we’ve got that identified, then we kind of morph the system in place,” he said. “I’ve definitely got some ideas — that’s why we identified and signed the players we have. But we’re going to go and use the full eight weeks in our preseason and try different things. Do not worry — do not focus on the results during preseason, because this is a new group.”
The depth chart will work itself out in the coming weeks, but here are a few positions of interest:
The starting position here could be competitive — a first for the club without Hildebrandt. Vancouver wouldn’t have loaned Richey out without the understanding he’d see some hefty minutes. But signing Evan Newton from Sacramento indicates Richey won’t have it as easy as Hildebrandt did. It’s conceivable they’ll split time the way they did with their old clubs last year.
Probable starting candidates are Lasso, Keinan, Barrett and De Wit. De Wit has some time with Koch under his belt already. Lasso has been an instant hit on social media, detailing his workouts. If nothing else, he has endless heart and passion. Both Keinan and Barrett must get used to life in the United States as well as soccer in the USL. The biggest challenge here will be how quickly they can gel as a unit, especially with a new goalkeeping corps.
Koch will have a few options here. McLaughlin is the incumbent, but Laing, who is left-footed, seems a natural fit. He was a three-time NASL Best XI and last year with North Carolina FC had eight goals and five assists in 24 appearances. Laing could also be used as a left back, but if he winds up on the left wing, McLaughlin could move to right wing or even come off the bench if Ledesma lands at right flank. The thought of McLaughlin as a sub shows the quality of the offseason signings and isn’t a bad thing. Bringing him on with fresh legs in the last 30 minutes could be lethal.
There are also additions and departures to the USL Eastern Conference. The NASL is teetering on the brink of dissolution, which surely helped Koch land some of its best players. Former NASL members Indy Eleven and North Carolina FC chose more stable ground in the USL. Nashville SC, picked as an MLS expansion team in December, will play in the USL until its to-be-announced inaugural MLS season. Atlanta United 2 is the new USL affiliate for the Atlanta United MLS squad. Depending on how the competition for Brad Guzan’s backup spot goes, it’s possible Hildebrandt could return to Nippert Stadium as a visiting goalkeeper with ATL UTD 2. Existing member Harrisburg City Islanders changed its name to Penn FC.
Rochester and Orlando City B face financial trouble and are taking a year hiatus from the league. Saint Louis FC again switches conferences and is back in the Western Conference.
For the third straight season, FCC begins play at Charleston on March 17. The home opener is April 7 against defending USL Cup champion Louisville in the season’s first Dirty River Derby.
Though there are plenty of new faces and it will take some time for the new parts to mesh to the old ones, the talent is there for FCC to be at the top of the Eastern Conference table and contend for the USL Cup. The club will start February with a string of preseason friendlies in Florida. Stay tuned to cincinnatisoccertalk.com for coverage of the trip.