FC Cincinnati begins its third season at Charleston on Saturday in a league that has become exponentially more competitive in every year of the club’s existence.
The USL has grown in size and stature in the last three years and is now much different than in FCC’s inaugural 2016 season, when as a United States Soccer Federation-sanctioned Division III league there were 29 teams. Now at Division II, there are 33 USL teams with even more coming next season.
Many teams are bringing in better players. The blueprint this offseason, followed by FCC and others in the Eastern Conference — most notably Indy Eleven and Nashville SC — was key international signings and additions from the North American Soccer League, which canceled its 2018 season two weeks ago.
“Each year it’s getting better and better,” said Jimmy McLaughlin, one of three holdovers from FCC’s inaugural season. “The quality of players improve and the number of teams that are doing things the right way and pumping money into it is increasing as well. This year’s going to take another step up with the NASL folding and a lot of those players coming over here. It’s been cool to see the growth and be involved in it.”
FCC went through a major roster overhaul, with each offseason signing seemingly bigger than the one before it. The club’s ultimate goal, as it is every year, is to lift the USL Cup in November. But with the improvements made by other clubs, that’s no small task.
“I’m not shy to say that our team is going to be significantly better,” FCC coach Alan Koch said. “But every other team is going to be significantly better too.”
McLaughlin points to higher attendance at Nippert Stadium and other venues leading to more money owners have to spend.
“I’m not an economist or anything, but I think they can see the success of a club like us, a club like Sacramento, a club like Louisville — teams that are filling the seats and making money from games, giving them the ability to spend some more resources and get players with more experience,” McLaughlin said.
While FCC is stuck in Major League Soccer expansion purgatory, the USL is going through its own expansion process. Atlanta United 2 came on board this season as the affiliate for MLS side Atlanta United. Nashville SC will make a USL pitstop on its way to MLS, and Indy and North Carolina FC join from the NASL. Fresno FC and Las Vegas Lights FC are new in the Western Conference.
Further expansion comes in 2019 with Birmingham Legion FC, Memphis, Tenn., and Texas sides Austin and El Paso. Chicago joins in 2020, and East Bay in Oakland, Calif., follows suit in 2021.
“It’s been a very systematic approach with the expansion,” Koch said of the USL. “They’ve been very, very smart with where they’ve chosen to have franchises. I’ll include us as part of that. I think our club has been a major part of the growth of the USL in terms of the fans and amazing attendance.”
A big factor in FCC’s season will be how quickly the new faces can cohere with each other and the returning veterans. Newcomer Tyler Gibson is no stranger to this situation. In fact, in Cincinnati, Gibson is on much more stable ground.
Gibson spent last season with the San Francisco Deltas and the season before with Rayo OKC, both of the NASL. Both teams existed for just one season before folding.
“For me, it’s kind of what I know,” Gibson said of seeing new faces here in Cincinnati. “It’s not a big shock to me. It’s a great group of guys, and we’re coming together very well and get along very well. It’s been a very easy transition.”
Supporters should expect at least a slight learning curve. FCC suffered its first preseason loss Saturday, 2-1, at Nippert against the Sacramento Republic in a match largely considered to be a dress rehearsal for this Saturday’s season opener in Charleston. How quickly all the kinks are worked out could determine how successful the season will be. The club’s depth should be a strength, providing for stiff job competition.
“There’s been a lot of communication amongst us and amongst the coaching staff kind of helping us out with what they want from us and expect from us,” defender Blake Smith said. “We’re all on the same page right now, but we’re still getting to know each other, and we have a long ways to go before we’ve got it all perfected. For now, it’s going to be a few growing pains to kind of sort through and hopefully get it fixed and figured out very early in the season.”