FC Cincinnati experienced its share of big moments during a three-year stay in the United Soccer League, but now the club embarks on a new, more meaningful journey.
Nine months after Major League Soccer officially announced Cincinnati as its 24th team for 2019, FCC will take the pitch for its MLS debut Saturday against the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field.
The Orange and Blue had the shortest runway into MLS of any lower division team making the jump up to U.S. Soccer’s top division, and their preparation will be put to the test right away against a Seattle team that finished second in the Western Conference last year and was the MLS Cup runner-up in 2017 and champion in 2016.
Here are five things to know about FCC going into its inaugural MLS season.
1. Preseason ups and downs
Cincinnati spent most of the preseason on the road, beginning with a two-week stay in Bradenton, Fla., and finishing with 10 days in Charleston, S.C. The club played three matches during each trip and had a road game against USL side Indy Eleven in between.
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The Orange and Blue left Florida unbeaten at 1-0-2 and looking pretty solid, but they head into the regular season with a bit of a sour taste, coming off a disappointing 3-0 loss against Columbus Crew SC last Saturday in their Carolina Challenge Cup finale. FCC went 2-2-3 overall in its first MLS preseason and showed much room for improvement, particularly in getting the ball out of the back and finding better connections in the midfield.
2. Style of play
FCC focused on defense during the roster-building process, and Koch gave the impression early on he was looking to pack the box and strike on counters, which was the mentality he successfully brought to the team’s 2017 U.S. Open Cup semifinal run.
Cincinnati seemed to be leaning toward a 3-5-2 early on, but then switched to a 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 in Charleston. The use of wingbacks with the 3-5-2 seems most appropriate for the makeup of the roster, but the club is still missing a key piece of that in U.S. men’s national team defender Greg Garza. Garza has been out longer than expected with a quad strain but hopes to be ready for Week 2 at his former club, Atlanta United.
The Orange and Blue will be most successful playing direct and utilizing the wingbacks to spread the field, then hoping Fanendo Adi can get some one- or two-touch strikes onto goal.
3. Shaping the lineup
The starting lineup against the Crew was the closest to what fans can expect to see Saturday at Seattle, though the poor showing could cause some shakeup.
Goalkeeper Przemslaw Tytoń didn’t finish on the best note, especially after expected backup Spencer Richey turned out an impressive performance in a 1-1 draw with Chicago Fire SC. However, unless FCC deems Tytoń not to be ready yet (he hasn’t started a game in more than a year), it’s unlikely the club benches the international goalkeeper.
Other projected starters could include: Center backs Nick Hagglund (a Lakota West High School grad), Kendall Waston and Mathieu Deplagne, wingbacks Alvas Powell and Blake Smith (Justin Hoyte did not train Wednesday), midfielders Victor Ulloa, Leonardo Bertone and Caleb Stanko or Allan Cruz and forwards Adi and Roland Lamah.
4. MLS debut for Koch
Koch will be making his official coaching debut at the MLS level after serving as a scout and “2 team” coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps prior to joining FCC in 2017.
He led Cincinnati to the United Soccer League regular-season title last year and a U.S. Open Cup semifinal run in 2017, and he guided Whitecaps 2 to the USL Cup final in 2016, but the question is: Can his lower-level success translate to the top division?
5. What are expectations?
While FCC obviously wants to win games, Koch has been trying to temper fans’ expectations, knowing how difficult it is to build a roster on a budget that doesn’t compare to some of the top teams in the league. The league didn’t cut the Orange and Blue any breaks either. Nine of the first 10 games are against 2018 playoff teams, including at Seattle, at MLS Cup Champion Atlanta United on March 10 and the home opener March 17 against Portland. If the defense meets expectations, FCC will at least be competitive.
“I’m excited for the challenge,” Koch said. “I do know we’re in the underdog position, we really are because we’ll be playing teams that have been together and we’re the expansion team that’s been trying to put all these pieces of the puzzle together as quickly as possible so I expect everyone else to be steps ahead of us for the start of the season, but I think as long as we show progress throughout the course of the season, that’s the most important thing.”
FC Cincinnati at Seattle Sounders FC, 10 p.m., FS 1
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