The Bailey serenaded FC Cincinnati on Saturday as the club left the pitch with the now-familiar “Campeones” chant. Club president and general manager Jeff Berding gave a rousing address to the Nippert Stadium crowd. Then the players re-emerged with orange T-shirts declaring the moment — “2018 Regular Season Champions.” They climbed a platform at midfield, accepted the franchise’s first trophy and bounced up and down in celebration, accompanied by flames shooting out behind them. Then they took a victory lap with the trophy around Nippert.
This was the scene after FCC’s 3-0 victory over Indy Eleven — the celebratory capper to a festive night earned three days prior with the Orange and Blue winning at Richmond. The trophy signifies the club will end its last USL regular season with more points than any other league club and gives it home-pitch advantage throughout the USL Cup Playoffs.
The Bailey greets the club with Campeones chant pic.twitter.com/Wt9YTNd686
— Cincy Soccer Talk (@cincysoccertalk) September 30, 2018
The occasion was “a long time coming,” said FC Cincinnati midfielder and franchise original Jimmy McLaughlin after Saturday’s festivities.
“This wasn’t built in one day, this wasn’t built in one year,” McLaughlin said. “This has been a long time coming for this club. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and we’ve had a lot of heartache to get to this point. You look back, you think of the loss in the playoffs in the first year where it feels like we have the victory under our belts. You know what, you learn from that, you move on.
“You think about the loss to the Red Bulls in the semifinals of the (U.S.) Open Cup last year. We think we should have won that game and lose, but we take a lesson from it. Obviously the players have changed a lot, the personnel has changed. But that stays with you as a club, and I think you grow from those experiences and it showed this year.”
The franchise’s biggest personnel change came in the technical staff. Alan Koch was hired as the director of scouting and analytics and an assistant coach in December 2016. Just two months later, he was thrusted into the head coaching position after the ouster of inaugural coach John Harkes.
Koch didn’t picture Saturday’s events when he took over, he said in his postmatch press conference.
“I never thought of this, to be honest,” Koch said. “I go one game at a time. I’m a builder. That’s why when I was given this job — and (it’s) a privilege to have this job — I knew we had a lot of hard work ahead of us. We squeezed everything we could out of the group last year, and we had that amazing, magical cup run, which we’ll never forget. But we really worked as a club incredibly hard to put this group in place this year. I’m very, very proud of everybody. I’m proud of ownership and management, players, medical, all of my technical staff. Those guys give everything they can every single day. So I’m very, very proud of our entire group. I’m proud of our fans — that support they give us here at home is amazing, but the support they give us on the road — I think a lot of people don’t see that.”
McLaughlin thought back on Saturday to his first tour of Nippert. He was told then that the organization hoped to draw 8,000 to 10,000 fans a game.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘That’s a little ambitious, but I hope they’re right,’” McLaughlin said. “But three years later we’re here lifting the USL Regular Season Championship trophy. This club is honestly like nothing else in the world. I don’t think any club has ever rose this quickly, and it’s unbelievable to be a part of it. Honestly this championship goes to everyone who’s ever been a part of this organization since before the club even played a game. It’s amazing to finally celebrate all that hard work with a regular-season championship.”
Saturday marked the last USL regular-season home match. FC Cincinnati begins the USL Cup Playoffs on Oct. 20. Any playoff club wanting the USL Cup must first defeat FCC on its home pitch, something that hasn’t happened since May 26.
Then it’s off to MLS, where FC Cincinnati begins play as an expansion club next March.
It took the franchise just three years to skyrocket from a concept drawn up in a coffee shop to stamping a footprint that MLS couldn’t ignore. Saturday’s match drew 31,478 fans, another USL regular-season, single-game attendance record set by the club.
McLaughlin hopes there will be more stories like FC Cincinnati’s but concedes the club took a unique path.
“I don’t know if there’s ever going to be another club like FC Cincinnati,” he said. “I honestly hope for the landscape of American soccer there is. There are promising teams, and more and more clubs are starting to follow the FC Cincinnati model and do things correctly. But Cincinnati — everything just came together. You look at it, and all these special ingredients just kind of took off, and it created something that I don’t know will ever be matched.”
Focus now turns to the last two regular-season road matches — at Pittsburgh on Saturday and at Nashville the Saturday following — as a lead-up to the playoffs.
Pittsburgh is third in the USL Eastern Conference table, and Nashville is a bubble team, sitting just one spot below the playoff line in ninth.
“I’m looking forward to those games as exercises, but I’m also looking forward to the exercise of training every single day,” Koch said. “We want to squeeze everything we can out of this group. I don’t think we’ve peaked yet. As good as we have been, I think we’re still capable of more. But we want to give ourselves the best chance possible to be successful in the playoffs. In a cup competition, anything can happen in 90 minutes, 120 minutes, penalty kicks. But we want to control as much as we can control.”
There could be some squad rotation in those last two matches. With two road matches last week, Koch made some moves on Saturday. Matt Bahner and Tyler Gibson — dealing with recent injuries — started. So did Pa Konate, who became playoff-eligible with his fifth FCC appearance since transferring to the club.
Sem de Wit and Russell Cicerone also made starts. It was Cicerone’s service into the box intended for Fanendo Adi that led to an Indy own goal in the 74th minute.
Cicerone had two chances created on Saturday and hopes to keep his name in Koch’s mind for playoff use.
“We just need to fine-tune what we need to do every game before the playoffs,” Cicerone said. “I think that’s the primary objective. And then personally, just keep the question in the coach’s mind if he wants to use me in the playoffs, that’s the biggest thing for me.
“Keep producing goals, whether it be from assists, from scoring myself or delivering good balls in the box and making good stuff happen. If I keep doing that, then it’s going to be on his mind.”