FC Cincinnati is destined for the first division of U.S Soccer in 2019. With their MLS future finally decided, a reasonable person might ask, “How much does the 2018 USL season really matter?”
It matters quite a lot if you consider the words of FC Cincinnati’s manager and front office. Both Alan Koch and Jeff Berding have stated a clear ambition to finish their third and final USL season on top. FC Cincinnati’s head coach said the following at the MLS announcement at Fountain Square on May 29th.
“We still have an amazing season ahead of us this year, and we want to finish that off in style.”
So far, so good.
How 2018 Stacks Up
FC Cincinnati currently sits on top of the Eastern Conference after 17 matches played, the halfway point of the 2018 season. Their position on top is not new. They’ve gone into each of their last 10 USL matches in either first or second place in the Eastern Conference.
Even though the Pittsburgh Riverhounds can match FC Cincinnati’s midseason point total by winning their two games in hand, FCC’s current standing bodes well. In 2016 and 2017, the team’s ranking at the halfway point was a good predictor of where the Orange & Blue would finish the regular season.
At the midway point in 2016, FCC had just beaten Bethlehem Steel FC, the final positive result in an 11 game unbeaten streak. They stood in third place with a 9-2-4 record and 31 points. That season they finished the regular season in third, but fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Charleston Battery.
At the midway point of a less successful 2017 season, FCC drew Orlando City B in Florida. They were 5-5-6 at that point with 21 points, good enough for seventh place in the East. They finished last season just one place ahead of that in sixth, and again crashed out in the first round of the USL playoffs, this time to Tampa Bay.
Comparing the first half of FCC’s three seasons:
It’s worth noting that the length of the USL schedule was extended each of the past two years; in 2017 the season was 32 games, and in 2016 it was 30.
So their current first place standing is a good omen. They also have talent, depth, and MLS momentum, but there is a lot of soccer to be played.
It wouldn’t be an FC Cincinnati article without some attendance talk. FCC is averaging 24,953 in paid attendance through half of the 2018 season. That’s up almost 18% from last year. They currently boast the fifth highest attendance of professional soccer teams in the U.S. and Canada behind Atlanta United, the Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, and the LA Galaxy.
First Half MVP
This is a short conversation. The first 17 games have produced some great moments, supplied by a variety of players, but Emmanuel Ledesma has been a class above the rest. He leads the team (and the USL) in assists with 8, and is tied with Danni König for the most team goals, also at 8. Ledesma also leads FCC in chances created (30), shots (36), shots on target (19), fouls won (26), and crosses (42). He’s had a goal or assist in 9 of the 17 games so far this season. Ledesma can boast 5 USL team of the week selections and 1 USL player of the week award. He’s got a good shot at USL MVP if he can keep up the pace.
Keys to First Half Success
Outside of the heroic contributions of Emmanuel Ledesma, the following highlights tell the story of the first 17 games.
Early in 2018, the offense hadn’t gelled and goals were hard to come by. It took two heroic performances by Evan Newton to earn maximum points on the road against Charleston and Indy Eleven. FCC probably shouldn’t have won either of those games, and their midseason record might not look quite as rosy without those points. The three-time USL Save of the Week winner has the ability to make stops that change the outcome of games. The defense hasn’t been as airtight recently, but fans have good reason to feel confident with Newton in the net coming down the stretch.
Perhaps the most standout feature of the first 17 games has been the road form of FC Cincinnati. Alan Koch’s “road warriors” are 6-1-2 in a travel-heavy first half of the season. The single game they lost was the 4-1 drubbing they took in Charlotte, which looks like an aberration at this point.
In addition to fine road form, the depth of the squad has stood out. The team has been able to overcome injuries to Tyler Gibson, Kenney Walker, and Evan Newton. They’ve also dealt with yellow card suspensions to Keinan, Lasso, and Ledesma. Most recently against Ottawa, Mike Lahoud stepped in as the holding midfielder for the injured Richie Ryan, and was one of the best players on the field. Few USL teams can compete with FCC in terms of the strength of the 18 they can put out each week.
The team boasts 9 different goalscorers and 8 different players with assists. Early in the season, a “score from anywhere” offense was the hallmark of the Orange & Blue’s strategy. As the season has progressed, however, there’s been a shift to the goals being more concentrated with the attacking players: Ledesma, König, Welshman, and Albadawi.
Questions for the Next 17
A lot can change after the next 17 games, and FC Cincinnati will have to continue to absorb every team’s best shot if they want to stay on top of the heap. That quest starts this Saturday, July 7th, against Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium. The answers to the following questions will go a long way toward determining FCC’s end of season success.
Can they improve their home record?
Only dropping 1 of 9 games on the road is pretty insane. Results away from Nippert in the second half will likely drop off, at least a little. However, home form has been average up until now (4-2-2), so there’s a good chance if they can pick things up at Nippert, any second half dip in road results can be offset at home. They need to take better advantage of a Nippert Stadium that should be packed for the rest of the season.
Will MLS expansion become a distraction?
A lot of news will hit the press between now and October about next season and the team’s rise to Major League Soccer. There’s also a lot to be done by the coaching staff behind the scenes to get ready. Although technical director Luke Sassano will do a lot of the heavy lifting, Alan Koch will certainly need to be involved in the decision making. Could the attention required and distractions to the players negatively affect results? The team did a good job of managing the MLS circus during the first half of the season. That will have to continue.
Can the defense keep things cleaner?
FC Cincinnati’s offense is really ticking, and they currently lead USL in goals scored with 35. However, over a third of the teams in the USL have conceded fewer goals than FCC. The Orange & Blue have conceded 21 goals, or 1.2 goals per game. Compare that to the second place Pittsburgh Riverhounds, at 0.47 goals per game; or Nashville SC at 0.67 goals per game. Those teams can’t compete with FCC’s offense, but the defense will need to be stingier to capture a top seed in the playoffs. There’s reason to be optimistic though. They’ve kept clean sheets in 3 of their last 5 games.
Can Ledesma stay this hot?
Emmanuel Ledesma has been on fire. While there’s no signs of him slowing down, increased production by others in the second half might be required to maintain the top spot. Nazmi Albadawi looks primed to fill the role. The Raleigh, NC native is picking up steam and has 6 goals in his last 8 league outings.
Can FCC peak at the right time?
USL, like MLS, is obviously a playoff league. They could get the answer right to all of the questions above, and if they aren’t in peak form at playoff time, the hard work can go out the window in one game. That’s the nature for American sports. Doing everything possible to stay healthy and be at peak form for the playoffs is critical.
Midfielder Mike Lahoud said the following about the team’s performance in the first half of the season.
“We’re content with the body of work, but we’re not satisfied. We haven’t won anything yet. This is the halfway point, and you get zero trophies for being in first place halfway. We’re moving toward something tangible, and from here on out, it’s a downhill slalom.”
Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for the second half of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season.