FC Cincinnati fans still shocked but support remains strong after John Harkes' sudden departure

CINCINNATI -- Days after the sudden firing of FC Cincinnati coach John Harkes, fans are still getting over the shock.

But the general consensus is they support the club, regardless of who the coach is.

FC Cincinnati relieved Harkes of his duties Friday and replaced him with former Vancouver Whitecaps 2 manager Alan Koch, who was hired in December as director of scouting and analytics and assistant coach.

FC Cincinnati enjoyed record-setting crowds in its inaugural season. (Phil Didion/WCPO contributor)

The team left Saturday morning for its preseason trip to Bradenton, Florida, where FC Cincinnati is off to an 0-2 start with a pair of 3-2 losses to United Soccer League foe Oklahoma City Energy FC on Sunday and Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire FC on Wednesday.

“I was floored when I logged online Friday night and saw everything going on with Harkes,” said Melissa Rodenfels, a 33-year-old Reading resident who attended at least 12 games last year. “He’s been such an instrumental part in getting FC Cincinnati to where they are. He was so great with the fans and so great, from a fan perspective with what you can see, with the players. I don’t think they would have had the season they would have without him.”

But Rodenfels is optimistic about Koch.

“It still hurts a little as someone who followed from the beginning, … but I am behind the new coach. He seems to have a good rapport, and if you follow them on social media, the team seems to be taking to him. I’ll give him a chance and still follow.

"It doesn’t matter who’s coaching but it’s just the fact it was so sudden and there was really no explanation why two days before their first preseason game they decide to make a change. If there were issues, why weren’t they handled in the offseason?”

Harkes, the former U.S. men’s national team captain, led FC Cincinnati to a 16-6-8 finish in its inaugural campaign last year, which was good for third in the USL’s Eastern Conference. He was the face of the club in the community that supported it by smashing several league attendance records.

FC Cincinnati made a splash when it named former U.S. men’s national team star John Harkes as its first head coach.

The initial report from Goal.com, which first broke the news of Harkes’ firing, cited a power struggle between team President and General Manager Jeff Berding and the coach; however, Berding said in a radio interview on 700-WLW on Saturday that was not the case.

In Berding’s statement provided to media Friday he said the club believes the change gives it “a technical staff that is in alignment with our vision for the franchise.”

Die Innenstadt supporters group president and founder Ryan Lammi said fans just need to trust the front office’s judgment.

“It (the timing) doesn't seem ideal in any way, but so far the front office has made pretty good decisions all around,” Lammi said. “I think the hiring of John Harkes was excellent in the first year. It gave our club immediate legitimacy. It kind of turned heads when it was announced John Harkes was our head coach, so I don't think we would be where we are today without him. I think we owe him a great deal of respect for what he did in Year 1, but without being there in the back rooms, it's hard to know what happened."

Much like Rodenfells, Lammi says this doesn't change anything as a fan.

“We are going to support the club. You have to assume they have their own reasons for doing this. Obviously, people can disagree with the decision, but ultimately, it is what it is, and we're not going to stop supporting the team because of a coaching change or something like that.”

Season ticket holder Steven Williams, 37, of Landon, said the fans he interacts with or sees posting on social media seem to be split down the middle between still being disappointed and trusting the decision is best for the club.

Ultimately, he doesn’t believe it will impact attendance, even if people disagree with the change because the club proved itself in year one and earned enough credibility among fans to keep their interest.

“I’m not as worried as some of the other fans are,” Williams said. “I think the person we have brought in (Koch) is more than able to lead the team. He did really good stuff with his previous team and when he came here he talked about FC Cincinnati’s ambition, so he understands the level and will fill the role well.”

Lammi noted that what seemed like total chaos on social media Friday now seems to have calmed down, despite the team’s slow start in the preseason.

He said it’s too early to know the impact. 

“They are using the preseason for what it is -- getting back into things after the offseason, subbing a lot and trying some new things to see what works,” Lammi said. “It's really not important whether they win or lose these games. The results are in no way indicative of whether we are going to win the USL or fall apart midseason.”

FC Cincinnati fans march for The Bailey to watch the FC Cincinnati vs Richmond Kickers game at Nippert Stadium on June 4, 2016. (Phil Didion/WCPO Contributor)

Koch spent two seasons as the head coach of Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, taking the team from eight wins in 2015 to 12 victories in 2016 with a sixth-place finish in the standings. WFC2 won their first-ever playoff match against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and then posted a 3-2 win over Oklahoma City Energy FC to advance to the Western Conference final before falling to USL Cup finalist Swope Park.

Even with his impressive resume, Koch will be held to more expectations in Cincinnati than just getting results on the field, Rodenfels said.

“I have young kids, and I know their favorite thing was getting players’ autographs after games, and John Harkes was a big part of that,” she said. “He would talk with the kids and interact with them, so for us, it will come down to how the new coach handles it. Does he respond same way? Fans will react to that if they see he’s not as willing to be out in the open as Harkes was.

“He was put in a bad position because it happened all so fast, whether he knew or not, but I think he’s going to know the pressure. The way everyone reacted Friday when this happened, he’s going to know he needs to step up because there is such a huge fan base to answer to, and he’s the new face of the club.”

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