9 things FC Cincinnati can learn next week during its three exhibition games in Florida

Who will step up? Can FCC beat the Fire?

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati surprised onlookers last year when it went to Florida and won the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic less than a month after getting together for its first official practices as a United Soccer League expansion team.

The club built off the early momentum throughout the season to finish third in the Eastern Conference table and earn a home playoff game in its inaugural year.

Now, preparing for Year 2, FC Cincinnati is set to return to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida for a week-plus of training punctuated by three exhibition games.

The Orange and Blue begin their preseason slate Sunday, when they face USL Western Conference foe OKC Energy FC, followed by games against Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire (Feb. 22) and USL newcomer Ottawa Fury (Feb. 25). All three games will be streamed live at live.imgacademytv.com.

As the preseason begins to heat up, here are 9 things FC Cincinnati can learn from its trip south:

1. How will the offense look in the post-Okoli era?

Forward Sean Okoli emerged as FC Cincinnat's go-to player up top when it needed a score last year, but the USL's Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner (16 goals) moved on to MLS side New York City FC during the offseason, leaving questions as to what the attack would look like this season.

Expect FC Cincinnati to try out some different combinations in Florida, as the club seeks to replace that production and see how players react in various situations. Andrew Wiedeman is the top returning goal-scorer, with seven goals last year, but the club signed five new forwards who also could make an impact.

FC Cincinnati celebrates Andrew Wiedeman's goal during the first half of the game against Harrisburg City Islanders at Nippert Stadium on Saturday May 28, 2016. FC Cincinnati won the game with a final score of 2-0 (Phil Didion for WCPO).

"Year to year, you are always bringing in new faces, and different guys step up in different roles and challenge themselves," coach John Harkes said. "I think we're very comfortable where we are right now, but we look forward to seeing who steps up and fills that role.

"It's a collective effort right now, and (in practice) guys are doing a great job in the final third, but we want to get more goals this year. We had an awful lot of opportunities last year and we could have done a better job finishing, so now it's just being cleaner in front of the goal and getting goals from different players in different spots in the field."

FC Cincinnati was 10th in the USL with 41 goals last year, 20 goals fewer than champion New York Red Bulls II. Nine of Okoli's 16 goals came on penalty kicks.

2. Who has a chance to emerge to a bigger role?

FC Cincinnati returns 17 players from its 2016 roster, including 10 of the starters from the first-round playoff loss to Charleston. The club will get an early glimpse of where everyone is, physically, mentally and competitively, next week in Florida, and certainly a few players will emerge ready to take on bigger roles in 2017.

"Hopefully, with all the guys from last year bringing back a year of experience and knowing the league, and the addition of some of us new players, that translates to a lot of success in 2017," said new midfielder Aodhan Quinn, who played for Louisville City FC last year.

One player of note to watch for is Eric Stevenson, who worked into the starting lineup last June after coming back from double hip surgery that sidelined him for more than 18 months. He scored three goals and assisted three others despite playing half the minutes of the three players on the team who scored more than him, and his long-range strike to the upper-right corner in the playoff game made him a finalist for the USL Goal of the Year. 

FC Cincinnati's Eric Stevenson winds up for a kick that will score his teams' one and only goal during the FC Cincinnati vs. Charleston Battery playoff game at Nippert Stadium on Sunday Oct. 2, 2016. Charleston Battery won with a final score of 2-1. Phil Didion | WCPO Contributor

3. Who's new and has a shot to get significant playing time?

The club signed nine new players in the offseason, and each could find a role, but early competition will help determine just how much of an impact the newbies could make.

Striker Victor Mansaray could be the most promising, as a U.S. national team player who logged minutes for the U-20 and U-18 squads and came to Cincinnati on loan from Seattle Sounders FC, where he was a homegrown player like Okoli. Mansaray, who had five goals and two assists for the Sounders FC 2 club in 2016, was featured in the USL's "20 Under 20" last year, coming in at No. 1 on the league's list of top young talent.

The other new forwards include Andy Craven, Kadeem Dacres, Djiby Fall and Daryl Fordyce. Craven split last season between OKC Energy and Seattle Sounders 2, where he was called up to the MLS roster three times in the last two years. Dacres was one of Louisville City's top players last year, scoring two goals and adding two assists. Fall, a veteran from Senegal playing for the first time in the U.S., once led the Tippeligaen League (Norway's top division) in 2010 with 16 goals in 28 appearances while playing on loan for Molde, earning accolades as the league's Player of the Year. Fordyce spent the last four years with FC Edmonton and was the club's all-time leading scorer with 32 goals across all competitions.

Marco Dominguez, Quinn and Aaron Walker join the midfield. Dominguez, a Canadian youth national team member, played two years for FC Montreal (formerly of the USL), totaling 1004 minutes and two assists in 15 matches last season. Quinn had the second-most minutes of anyone on Louisville City FC's roster last year and had three goals and three assists. Walker, who spent 2015 with BI/Bolungarvik in the Icelandic first division, emerged from the club's open tryout in December.

Lakota West graduate and former University of Cincinnati standout Matt Bahner is the one new defender, coming from North American Soccer League side Jacksonville Armada FC, where he spent the past two seasons.

4. How much better is the defense?

Five of the six defenders on the roster returned from last year (Austin Berry, Tyler Polak, Pat McMahon, Harrison Delbridge and Derek Luke), plus USL Goalkeeper of the Year Mitch Hildebrandt and midfielder Paul Nicholson, who filled in at center back while Berry was injured last year. Bahner adds to the group.

FC Cincinnati was tied for fifth in the USL with 27 goals allowed last year and gave up more than two goals just twice (three goals both times). The club finished the regular season with four straight clean sheets and 10 shutouts overall.

"I feel very good about where we're at, but you never know," Harkes said. "It's early. We will be tested in games, and we'll find something else new. You're always working on it every day."

5. How much more depth does FC Cincinnati have in Year 2?

Preseason games usually involve a lot more rotation and trying different combinations of players to keep everyone fresh and injury-free, so it's a good chance to see right away what kind of depth FC Cincinnati might have. Harkes thought he had enough depth last year with a roster he put together in two months, but naturally the club should expect that to be even better in Year 2, especially with a higher payroll and the hype surrounding FC Cincinnati drawing more interest among quality players.

The midfield and attack especially should feature a lot of competition for playing time with a good mix of returning players and intriguing newcomers.

"We already see (the depth) every day in training," Harkes said. "We see the patterns of what is working, and it will be fun to put them in different shapes when we get to Florida."

6. How does chemistry make a difference early on?

FC Cincinnati seemed to take a little while to jell last year, especially on defense while giving up several late goals, and as well as the club moved the ball around, the offense could never seem to put games away early. With 17 of the 26 players from the Year 1 final roster back for a second season, FC Cincinnati should see much earlier results on both ends of the field.

The offense is the biggest question in that regard with so many new faces likely to see playing time and already a point of emphasis for improvement, but players like Wiedeman, Jimmy McLaughlin, Corben Bone and Kenney Walker should remain stabilizing forces.

FC Cincinnati's Andrew Wiedeman rushes through Richmond's defense during the FC Cincinnati vs Richmond Kickers game at Nippert Stadium on Saturday June 4, 2016. The game ended in a 1-1 draw (Phil Didion for WCPO).

"It's nice we have a nice core back and we're not starting with 25 new parts," Wiedeman said. "We brought back two-thirds of the team, and we're sprinkling in some complimentary pieces. Everyone is jelling together well, so it should be a good year. We had a great locker room last year, and I don't think people appreciate how far that can take a team. It's one of those intangibles that's really big, and I think the front office and coaching staff did a good job making sure everyone had solid character and would mesh well together not only on the field but in the locker room with their personalities."

7. How much does losing the "surprise factor" impact the club?

Last year, no one knew what to expect from FC Cincinnati. Now, after gaining attention from a successful first season on the field and at the gates, FC Cincinnati is considered one of the hottest clubs in the country and has earned the respect of anyone it plays.

Teams also have film and know more of the club's tendencies, so FC Cincinnati will be looking for new ways to grow less predictable while still maintaining its possession-style attacking system.

"We have a little target on our back, but I think we're a very different team this year," Wiedeman said. "One of the things we wanted to work on in the offseason was maybe being a little more adaptable and being able to give teams different looks so we're not so predictable. I think we're a stronger team going forward."

8. How does FC Cincinnati stack up in the USL?

The Suncoast Pro Classic will give FC Cincinnati an early look at its league competition, particularly Eastern Conference foe Ottawa Fury, which is on the schedule for Aug. 23 and Oct. 8.

Ottawa, which joined the league after leaving the NASL, is a club FC Cincinnati is less familiar with, but their matchup Feb. 25 provides an early preview of how the teams stack up with one another before they start battling for position in the conference table. The Fury finished 10th in the NASL last year and did not qualify for the playoffs after finishing as the runners-up in 2015.

OKC Energy, which finished seventh in the Western Conference at 10-7-13 overall, is not on the regular-season schedule but is a team FC Cincinnati could see with a deep run in the playoffs. FC Cincinnati finished 16-6-8 last year and lost in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

9. How does FC Cincinnati compare to an MLS side right now?

Harkes believes he has put together a USL championship-caliber roster, but FC Cincinnati will get a chance to see how it stacks up against an MLS club -- which it hopes to be one day.

The Orange and Blue earned some instant credibility last year when it beat New York City FC 2-1 in the Suncoast Classic, and they will get another chance to turn some heads against MLS' Chicago Fire, which is trying to bounce back from a 7-17-10 finish in 2016. New York City, by the way, finished second in the Eastern Conference.

"Chicago Fire will have savvy players on the field, good quality, and we look forward to competing against them," Harkes said. "It should be fun."

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