By Grant Freking
The UEFA Champions League kicked off this week, uniting soccer’s elite European clubs in a season-long competition that tests their ability to negotiate both domestic and foreign campaigns.
FC Cincinnati doesn’t play in the UEFA Champions League, of course, though the Orange and Blue eventually could suit up in the CONCACAF Champions League after it joins Major League Soccer in 2019. That one is a competition among teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean that endeavors to crown a transcontinental champion. Successfully navigating these Champions Leagues requires excellence on and off the field; the personnel decision-makers must make sure rosters are deep and talented to win multiple games per week while maintaining the long view on seasons lasting between seven and nine months.
This area is where FC Cincinnati already possesses experience with its three notable roster administrators: head coach Alan Koch, technical director Luke Sassano, and president and general manager Jeff Berding. They’ve spent the summer making adjustments to the roster and recruiting talent that can positively impact the team’s United Soccer League championship hopes this fall as well as its MLS ambitions in 2019.
Berding hired Koch as an assistant to then-head coach John Harkes in December 2016. Koch, formerly the head coach of Vancouver Whitecaps 2, a USL squad, was also brought on to spearhead FCC’s youth academy project and to serve as director of scouting and analytics. Two months later, on the doorstep of FC Cincinnati’s 2017 season, Harkes was out and Koch was in as FCC’s head coach. FCC went on to finish sixth in the USL’s Eastern Conference, but the club’s league ambitions were impacted by a stunning run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, which included wins over MLS clubs Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire.
Sassano, a former MLS player, was hired away from New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in March. Both Koch and Sassano are known for their international contacts, with the latter traveling abroad extensively over the summer on scouting trips. Berding, a former Bengals executive who also served on Cincinnati City Council, was the public face of the club’s push for a new stadium and entry into MLS, succeeding on both fronts in spite of serious questions that need to be answered about the social and economic repercussions of a 20,000-plus-seat stadium being constructed in the struggling West End neighborhood.
After FC Cincinnati’s MLS entry became official, Koch, Sassano, and Berding wasted little time upgrading the roster for USL and MLS play. The first two signings were a pair of MLS vets in striker Fanendo Adi (who has already made his mark with a recent wonder goal) and midfielder Fatai Alashe. The two have seven-plus combined seasons of MLS time under their belts as instrumental pieces for the Portland Timbers (where Adi scored 54 goals) and San Jose Earthquakes (where Alashe started 69 games). Swedish international Pa Konate, a left back who was playing in the top division of Italian soccer and has UEFA Champions League experience, also was brought in with an eye on 2019.
Both Adi and Alashe have already broken into the squad that’s riding an 18-game unbeaten streak heading into Saturday’s match at Penn FC, and have done so seemingly without disturbing the mojo of what’s been the USL’s top squad by a wide margin. FC Cincinnati has morphed into the proverbial downhill snowball, taking out anyone in its path; the club is 16 points clear of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference and is the only team to clinch a playoff spot yet as of this writing.
Whenever FC Cincinnati’s season ends, Koch, Sassano, and Berding will turn their full attention to the team’s inaugural MLS roster, which will also be impacted by the expansion draft (last year’s expansion draft allowed LAFC to select five players from other teams under heavy stipulations) and the MLS SuperDraft, an amateur player selection draft similar those conducted by MLB, the NBA, the NFL, and the NHL. FC Cincinnati will own the first overall selection in the SuperDraft.
To this point, Koch, Sassano, and Berding have proven adept enough at balancing FCC’s present with its future. If the club captures a USL championship, followed by a strong offseason that ensures FC Cincinnati is ready to compete in MLS straightway, fans will feel awfully good about the franchise’s future.