Well, here we are. FC Cincinnati’s Major League Soccer debut is just days away. The Orange and Blue’s first MLS game late Saturday night against the Seattle Sounders is a dream realized for the club and its supporters and a historic moment for Cincinnati, which now boasts three major professional sports teams for the first time since 1972. In just three years, FC Cincinnati has elevated itself from a United Soccer League expansion club that skillfully tapped into a sleeping giant of local soccer support to the highest level of American soccer. The ascendancy will continue in two years, when the club is scheduled to open a new stadium in the West End.
Here’s what to know before FCC’s major league kickoff.
A big-league wake-up call awaits the newbies. FC Cincinnati has spent the past month-plus preparing for the regular season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and playing in the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, South Carolina. Both locations featured friendlies vs. MLS foes to mostly positive reviews, save for last weekend’s 3-0 thrashing by the Columbus Crew. FCC’s opening match in Seattle takes place in a tough road venue; the Sounders’ average home attendance cleared 40,000 in 2018, and they’ve made the playoffs in all 10 seasons of its MLS existence. FC Cincinnati’s next match at Atlanta comes against the defending MLS champions, who doubled as the league’s highest scoring outfit last year. As for FCC’s long-awaited St. Patrick’s Day home opener—methinks there will be quite a few “sick days” around town on Monday, March 18—the opposition is Portland, which lost to Atlanta in the 2018 MLS Cup. No sweat, eh?
What will the formation be? Though FCC raced to the 2017 United Soccer League regular season crown by playing a visually sensational attack-minded scheme, it’s quite likely to employ a defense-first strategy in 2019, one similar to the setup head coach Alan Koch used during the club’s run to the semifinals of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. In the preseason, FC Cincinnati has operated in both a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-3, each of which will require adept play from defenders and defensive/central midfielders. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that FCC loaded up on defenders and midfielders over the offseason.
So who are those defenders and midfielders? Notable names include Greg Garza, a regular for Atlanta last season at left back; center back Nick Hagglund, a Cincinnati native who played college ball at Xavier and was a contributor on some very good Toronto FC squads; Forrest Lasso, the 2018 USL Defender of the Year; Alvas Powell, a steady right back imported from Portland with plenty of international experience for Jamaica; and Kendall Waston, a towering center back regarded as one of the best in the league at his position. As for the defensive and central midfielders, keep an eye on 23-year-old Allan Cruz, who previously spent his pro career playing in Costa Rica; Victor Ulloa, who started 25 games for FC Dallas in 2018; Mathieu Deplagne, a former regular in France’s top division; and Fatai Alashe, who came over from San Jose last season.
Defense is important, sure, but who is going to score goals? FC Cincinnati’s No. 1 scoring threat will likely be striker Fanendo Adi, who arrived from Portland last season and has 54 MLS goals to his name. The team will also count on Darren Mattocks, who tallied 10 goals in 25 games for D.C. United last year; former Columbus Crew forward Kekuta Manneh; Roland Lamah, who notched eight goals and six assists for Dallas in 2018; and 2018 USL MVP Emmanuel Ledesma.
Who are the holdovers from FCC’s 2018 team? Adi, Alashe, Lasso, and Ledesma, plus goalkeeper Spencer Richey; defenders Justin Hoyte and Blake Smith; midfielders Nazmi Albadawi, Corben Bone, and Jimmy McLaughlin (out indefinitely with a knee injury); and forward Emery Welshman.
Aside from the home opener, what will be the other notable games at Nippert Stadium? How about June 22 vs. LA Galaxy (hopefully Zlatan Ibrahimović changes his stance about playing on turf similar to the surface at Nippert Stadium); July 18 vs. D.C. United and former Manchester United talisman Wayne Rooney; August 25 vs. Columbus Crew (second leg of the “Hell Is Real” rivalry); and Sept. 18 vs. defending champs Atlanta.
What about the stadium and other off-the-field concerns? Final hurdles appear to have been cleared for the next step in stadium construction, notably settlements with Music Hall as well as Cincinnati Ballet and a West End restaurant. FC Cincinnati will also reportedly team up with a USL team to ensure some of the club’s reserve players get regular field time. Oh, and Gary the Lion is a thing now.
Is a winning record and/or reaching the postseason possible? Koch and his staff have a massive task on their hands attempting to mesh a roster of 11 holdovers from last season with a variety of MLS veterans and a hodgepodge collection of international players in a very short period of time. FC Cincinnati has acquired too much talent to be a disaster like Minnesota United was during its inaugural season in 2017; they finished ninth in the Western Conference and conceded the most goals in the league. Yet expecting the Orange and Blue to replicate the success of Atlanta and Los Angeles FC—each of which not only reached the postseason in their inaugural seasons in 2017 and 2018, respectively, but notched top-four places— is too much to ask.
The magic number for FC Cincinnati could be 50. Over the past two seasons, 50 points were required of the sixth and final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. And, fortunately for FCC, a seventh postseason slot has been in each conference added for 2019. So, are the playoffs realistic? The pick here is that FC Cincinnati logs 43 points and finishes 8th out of 12 teams in the Eastern Conference.
A slow beginning is coming. Yes, the opening three matches are vicious, but nine of the club’s first 10 matches are against 2018 playoff squads. Better days are ahead, though—I expect FCC to gel as the summer wears on, and the club is investing too much money on and off the field to settle for a sustained losing side. But in Year 1, I’m afraid the deck is stacked too high to reach the playoffs. Enjoy the ride, though, it’s going to be lots of fun.
Grant Freking is Associate Editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.