That’s a wrap on the dress rehearsals. Time for the real performances.
Granted, talking about the teams who will challenge FC Cincinnati for the Eastern Conference crown is a delicate maneuver. It’s way too soon to assume that a retooled team that was wiped out in the first round last year has the conference locked down. However, considering all of the talent drawn to the Queen City in the off-season, it’s hard to not mention FCC when possible contenders are brought up in conversation.
Naturally, the Orange & Blue shouldn’t be the only ones in that conversation. It begs the question—who will be FC Cincinnati’s biggest challenges during the 2018 USL season?
Louisville City FC
It’s a safe bet that, as long as Coach James O’Connor is calling the shots, Louisville City will be in the running for the top of the conference. It’s been an impressive run for the Boys in Purple since 2015, continuously bettering their team while shedding very little of the roster each year—15 players remain after their 2017 championship run, while 3 (goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh, forward Ilija Ilić, and midfielder Niall McCabe) have been on the team since the beginning.
That low turnover rate and the return of forward Magnus Rasmussen after a stint back in Denmark will bring a ton of familiarity to the team. While Louisville has lost two of their four defenders from 2017, O’Connor has often used a sparse D-line. He’s also buffered the back with ex-FCC-defenseman Pat McMahon and Jamaican national Shaun Francis. Couple their overall stability with unselfish play (65 goals between 17 players in 2017), and our neighbors to the south could be pushing for a second star to their logo.
Does Louisville have a weakness? If anything, it could be depth, as the team fields only 20 players on their roster. Then again, Lou City had the same number of players last year, and we know how far they went with that.
After their declaration to join the USL in January, Indy didn’t even have five players ready for the 2018 season, let alone their “Eleven” namesake. While FC Cincinnati had done a purge of their own roster, Indy Eleven went into full upheaval, holding onto only three of their players from 2017, and letting go of their head coach. Since then, they’ve completely rebuilt their squad, hired ex-Carolina Railhawks and Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie, and gone for broke by scheduling games at Lucas Oil Stadium. That’s a high roll for an ownership group that was low in the MLS expansion rankings.
While this alone wouldn’t necessarily make them a challenge, Indy has done well to pick up their own talents from the NASL and MLS. To anchor the defense, they grabbed Reiner and Karl Ouimette from the disbanded NASL champion San Francisco Deltas, then managed to coax MLS strikers Jack McInerney and Soony Saad into joining their souped-up squad. Take into account Indy’s close proximity and solid audience (they’ve consistently flirted with attendances close to 10,000), and they could legitimately throw scares into FC Cincinnati’s own rebuilt team by bringing their own traveling chorus of fans with them.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
Tampa Bay’s second season as a USL participant (if 2010’s “USSF Division 2” league counts) was incredibly successful by all standards, losing only twice at home on their way to second place in the Eastern Conference, their highest overall finish since their NASL championship team in 2012. FCC still hasn’t figured out how to earn points at Al Lang Stadium, losing all three away games there.
While the team held on to its veterans, fielding a team that has seven players in their 30s, they’ve managed to steal some huge talents from others. Jochen Graf, the lead scorer for Rochester in 2017, fills in a need at the striker position, as he and Georgi Hristov could become a potent double-forward combination. Meanwhile, Junior Flemmings and Jack Blake give them youth in an already stacked midfield brimming with international talent (Joe Cole, Marcel Schäfer).
A key grab may be in the goalkeeper position, as the Rowdies obtained ex-Charlotte Independence keeper Cody Mizell in the offseason. Mizell was second in the Eastern Conference in saves behind Mitch Hildebrandt. However, getting younger in goal might come at a cost, as Mizell had only 5 clean sheets in 2017, half as many as the departing Matt Pickens. Still, if this team clicks like they did last year, there’s no doubting the Rowdies should make the playoffs.
When Major League Soccer came calling Nashville before the likes of Cincinnati, Sacramento, and other candidates with a D2 presence, it legitimately ruffled feathers in the Queen City. But there were doubts that NSC could construct an intimidating roster for the first of their two short years in the USL. However, a look through the roster shows that there are believers who have come to the Music City.
Head coach Gary Smith, who won an MLS title managing the Colorado Rapids in 2010, has already stockpiled 25 players on the Nashville roster. The offense will likely revolve around forwards Ropapa Mensah and Michael Cox, with Lebo Moloto and Matt LaGrassa leading the midfield. But Nashville is most likely to be known for their defense. The aforementioned Matt Pickens, Nashville’s first signee, was with Smith during the 2010 MLS Cup win with Colorado and had arguably his best season in net in 2017. The back line is comprised of solid USL talent gathered in a short amount of time and should give Pickens the help he needs.
Nashville will be a team that wants to win to prove to everyone that they deserved that MLS bid.
FC Cincinnati Themselves
While Pittsburgh has improved immensely by absorbing the remains of the Rochester Rhinos, and Charleston always seems to have FCC’s number in head-to-head competitions, it’s not unwise to suggest that the one team who can beat FC Cincinnati this season is FC Cincinnati themselves. (Yes, this is the coward’s way out when it comes to predictions, and I am a coward.)
The third year of a team’s existence feels like the one where results have to start coming. Despite the fuel from attendance numbers and the long run in last year’s U.S. Open Cup, the team fell flat from inconsistency in 2017. Winning streaks were rare, and players had to be signed in mid-season due to injuries, suspension, and fatigue. The early post-season exit for the second year in a row felt all too familiar in Cincinnati.
However, considering that head coach Alan Koch is now in his first full year with all the controls at his fingertips, there is a general vibe that this team can get it together. Quality players have been obtained from last year’s NASL Best XI team. Additionally, retirements and Division-1 call-ups on the defensive end have been countered with positive signings. On paper, this is an extraordinarily talented team rich with a desire to perform.
And that’s what critics will bring up—soccer games are played on fields, not on paper.
Much like Indy and Nashville, this Cincinnati team will need time to gel. 2018 will feel a little like 2016, where fans came in enthusiastic, but a little hesitant about where production will come from. A solid preseason showed an ability to spread the ball, and the emergence of new leadership in the back line. But the regular season will be a different beast altogether, especially if a potential MLS promotion motivates other teams to humble FCC.
The talent and the expectations are at higher levels than ever before, so can this band of 26 led by Koch, Damet, and Stern deliver on their potential? The march begins anew this Saturday, March 17th.
Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for our Charleston preview as the season officially kicks off in South Carolina this weekend.