The irony of Alan Koch’s firing on May 7 is that it was much less surprising than the way he was named FC Cincinnati’s head coach. Hired as an assistant to John Harkes in December 2016, Koch was suddenly elevated to head coach two months later after Harkes was fired—reportedly after losing a power struggle with General Manager Jeff Berding—just days before FCC began its United Soccer League preseason schedule. Two years later, Koch is out and FC Cincinnati, a club accustomed to rosey headlines both locally and nationally, must cope with its latest bit of negative news.
Here is Berding’s statement about Koch’s dismissal:
“After a series of recent issues and a team culture that had deteriorated, we determined that it’s time to make a change to return a club-centered focus to the team. This decision is not driven by recent game results themselves, but rather the underpinnings that have led to those results. We have not come close to maximizing the talent we have in the dressing room this year, nor have we seen a foundation being built that will set us up for success this year and into next year. Our whole locker room is committed to our club goal of earning an MLS postseason bid, and we need to put them in the best position to do so.”
Later at a press conference, Berding doubled down on his statement, repeatedly citing the poor leadership, energy, and culture around FC Cincinnati. So, aside from a few self-reflective sentences on how he can perform his own duties better, he shifted the entire blame for FCC’s malaise onto Koch. Last week I wondered whether Koch’s decision to openly pine for reinforcements was approved by Berding and/or technical director Luke Sassano as a form of public accountability or if it was a rogue move. I feel safe in saying now that Koch airing his grievances was the latter, and an indication of a deteriorating relationship with his superiors.
As I mentioned, Koch’s firing is the latest blow to FC Cincinnati’s typically sparkling public image. A club used to uplifting stories about its remarkable attendance totals and unexpected ascent to Major League Soccer now must cope with its coach’s sudden ouster during a gloomy stretch that includes five straight games sans a win, a draw or a goal (FCC has not scored from open play in 655 minutes). Factor in Fanendo Adi’s OVI citation and its stadium project possibly booting nearby West End residents from their homes, most famously a 99-year-old woman, and the joy of the FC Cincinnati’s 3-0 victory in its MLS home opener on March 17 seems like years ago.
Of course, Koch was not without blame in this mess. Adi, given his reckless off-the-field decision and relative lack of production on the field since joining FC Cincinnati late last summer, was not the ideal messenger for a postgame address questioning team strategy after last weekend’s latest setback in San Jose, but his low Q rating doesn’t necessarily devalue his words. And the fact that Adi, one of the team’s Designated Players, felt comfortable going public after his first appearance since March 17 could epitomize the frustration in the locker room. Koch was limited by Adi’s absence—as well as the unavailability of other key players like Greg Garza—and a strangely constructed roster (which he had a hand in assembling), but the fact is that FCC has been showing little to no improvement week to week.
Against San Jose, the Orange and Blue’s effort, energy, and tactical prowess were scattershot at best in a first half where they ceded 71 percent of the possession and made the hosts look like thundering European juggernaut Liverpool. The second half gave way to more spirit, but even after San Jose were reduced to 10 men early in the final 45 minutes, FCC still failed to crack the scoreboard or muster consistent scoring opportunities.
Taking Koch’s spot on an interim basis is one of his assistants, 29-year-old (yes, you’re reading that correctly) Yoann Damet, who instantly becomes the youngest head coach in MLS. We’ll see how the players respond to his appointment when FCC hosts Montreal Saturday afternoon at Nippert Stadium.
Instead of Damet feeling pressure, however, the spotlight should shift to Berding, whose comments also reinforced his preseason position on the Orange and Blue shooting for the postseason immediately in spite of their expansion status. (Despite their ragged form, FC Cincinnati sit just four points out of the Eastern Conference’s seventh and final playoff slot with 23 matches to go.) FCC’s general manager pledged a global search to identify Koch’s permanent successor. He should also be held accountable for his biting words about Koch, which weren’t the typical “it was just time for a change” remarks uttered by management after a coach is fired.
Koch and Berding were both accurate in their on-field assessment of the team. FC Cincinnati needs better players, but they should also be performing better with what they have. Time will tell if Berding & Co. made the right move, but what we do know is that FC Cincinnati’s glass slipper has plenty of cracks in it.