Following a 2-0 home loss last weekend against the New York Red Bulls, FC Cincinnati dropped to 3-2-9 (wins, draws, losses) on the year, with just 11 points to its name. On the bright side, Saturday night in Colorado, FC Cincinnati faces the only MLS side with fewer points (eight) than them on the year, the Colorado Rapids.
The Orange and Blue’s season-long struggles are well-documented, but what’s the recent precedent for expansion sides? Is FC Cincinnati operating in isolation, or should we have expected this malaise? And how have those expansion teams fared since their debut seasons? I’m glad you asked.
2018: Los Angeles FC
Year 1: 16-9-9
3rd place in the West
Lost in first round of playoffs
Since: Prior to FC Cincinnati’s road foray at LAFC in April, I chronicled the dominance of what was—and still is—the league’s top team by a healthy margin. Entering this weekend’s contests, LAFC owns eight more points than any other MLS side, and their point differential (plus-25) is far and away best in the game. Carlos Vela leads the league in goals and is tied for first in assists. Bob Bradley’s sideline stewardship should be a season-long calming influence. While LAFC is an ideal model for an expansion side—the club even got their arena built before they joined MLS—its operational resources are far beyond what FC Cincinnati can reasonably expect to achieve.
2017: Atlanta United
Year 1: 15-10-9
4th place in the East
Lost in first round of playoffs
Since: Atlanta United followed up its impressive inaugural campaign by winning the MLS Cup in 2018 behind league MVP Josef Martínez. After losing coach Tata Martino and key player Miguel Almirón in the offseason, Atlanta was slow out of the gates in 2019, managing just six points in its first six contests, including a 1-1 home draw vs. FC Cincinnati. Atlanta has since rebounded and sits fourth in the East standings. Like LAFC, Atlanta is very much a flagship MLS club, and will have the ability to attract top-class talent on a more consistent basis than FCC.
2017: Minnesota United
Year 1: 10-6-18
9th place in the West
Since: After finishing ninth in 2017, Minnesota placed 10th in the West last year, but things are trending upward in 2019. The club sits fifth in the West, receiving plaudits for improving its roster, perhaps most notably with longtime Seattle stalwart Ozzie Alonso. Minnesota also opened its new grounds, Allianz Field, this year, a feat FC Cincinnati hopes to duplicate in its third MLS season in 2021. (Another barrier for FCC’s stadium construction was cleared Thursday when it reached an agreement with disaffected West End residents.)
2015: New York City FC
Year 1: 10-7-17
8th place in the East
Since: NYCFC has vastly improved since its first go-around in MLS, registering a pair of second- and one third-place finishes in the East from 2016-18. After the loss of star striker David Villa (62 goals from 2016-18) in the offseason, NYCFC has held water, sitting sixth in the East. Co-owned by the New York Yankees—NYCFC home games are held at Yankee Stadium—and English Premier League powerhouse Manchester City, NYCFC is considered another big-money banner club like Atlanta and LAFC.
2015: Orlando City
Year 1: 10-8-14
7th place in the East
Since: Woof. Orlando has finished eighth, 10th, and 11th over the past three seasons, and sits 10th in the East in 2019. The club made waves by inking former Ballon d’Or winner Kaká as its first designed player, but the Brazilian superstar turned 33 shortly into the 2015 season, and serves as a cautionary tale regarding the investment in aging stars. Like Minnesota, Orlando—now on its third coach since entering MLS—also opened a new stadium in its third MLS season.
So, what are the lessons to be learned? FC Cincinnati falls into the Minnesota/Orlando grouping, so chances are the club will struggle to qualify for the playoffs not only this year, but probably next year, too. FCC hired a general manager, Gerard Nijkamp, with a soccer background just this week, and appointed an academy director the week prior, which has slowed its developmental timeline. It’s likely FC Cincinnati won’t be able to supplement their roster with the sort of impactful foreign signings Atlanta, LAFC, and NYCFC were able to make; they’ll need to rely on Nijkamp and technical director Luke Sassano’s connections abroad to make less-heralded acquisitions.
Over the past few years, FC Cincinnati made MLS entry and, by extension, confirmation of training and stadium sites its priorities. Now it must really zero in on building out its front office and academy infrastructure if the franchise is to avoid a long climb to contention.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Off the pitch, he is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.