CINCINNATI — Patrons of The Mercer, Taft’s Ale House and J Alexander’s might want to take a closer look at some of the help next time they dine.
The person parking your car or serving your meal could be an FC Cincinnati player.
Cincinnati’s newest professional sports team has become one of the hottest tickets in town — the team is trying to pack 25,000 fans into Nippert Stadium for tonight’s game. But that doesn’t mean that FC Cincinnati’s players are well known or even highly paid.
As reserve defender Derek Luke put it, he and his teammates "are regular people too" and a handful of them also hold part-time jobs. It’s a way to make some extra cash, fill a little free time and weave themselves into the fabric of the community they now call home.
Most of the time, they go unnoticed.
"I’m not in my FC Cincinnati uniform when I’m working, so I guess I kind of blend in," said Luke, who works a couple nights a week at The Mercer and Taft’s as a valet. "No one really recognizes me."
Players on the 25-person FC Cincinnati roster make as little as about $1,000 a month, but salaries range "considerably higher" for players with more experience, said FC Cincinnati General Manager Jeff Berding. Considering housing is provided for most, that might be enough for some players, but others need a better cushion.
Luke’s roommate, Evan Lee, also valets, and midfielder Michael Millay, who has yet to appear in a game, holds multiple jobs.
He serves at J Alexander’s restaurant about twice a week and even helped FC Cincinnati in sales and marketing part-time during the offseason.
Millay made calls to fans and walked around downtown in uniform passing out magnets and information about the team.
Millay had started working at J Alexander’s last fall after leaving his full-time job at startup sock company Rock ‘Em Apparel in Orlando to begin training for FC Cincinnati tryouts in November.
"It’s just a way to fill in free time and make a little extra money," said Millay, a former University of Cincinnati midfielder who finished his career at Coastal Carolina in 2014-15 and originally hung up his cleats because of injuries. "I was doing sales 9-5 when I first got up here, and then I’d go serve at nights, so I didn’t want to leave them high and dry. I still do some independent sales and consulting gigs, and I do help out every once in a while with the front office."
They also have to play some soccer…
Playing for FC Cincinnati is a full-time job in itself, though.
Head coach John Harkes estimates players dedicate about eight or nine hours to soccer on a typical non-game day. That includes mental preparation, such as film work and individual and team meetings, and about two to three hours of physical activity. The team holds 90-minute intense practices during the week and other — often less organized — workouts such as weightlifting, yoga or cycling.
"It’s definitely a full-time job, and they take their work seriously," Harkes said. "At 7 or 8 in the morning, they are up and getting after it."
The players even study film and information on the long bus rides and occasional plane trips for road games. Their mode of transportation depends on distance and other logistics, but of the five away games so far, FC Cincinnati has flown to Orlando City, Harrisburg and Charleston. The team usually arrives a day or two before an away game and leaves that night or the next morning.
On game days at home, players are basically on their own until meeting at Nippert Stadium about 90 minutes to two hours before kickoff. However, Harkes said there is a certain understanding as to what it takes to get prepared for a game.
"They are pros," Harkes said. "They have to make sure they are getting their minds right, proper sleep and timing of the energy — when you bring the energy to the game. Preparation starts early, and visualization, putting themselves in spots on the field and in certain situations, that even starts the night before."
The team sometimes has other obligations, as well, such as meet-and-greets with fans and community service projects. Most of that took place before the season started, but some players do appearances and other things in the community on their own.
Harkes said it’s also important to find a balance between team activities and rest, though, so players take advantage of their free time when they can. That usually comes late afternoon and in the evenings during weekdays and on Sundays and Mondays when they don’t have practice.
Most of the players live in the MadMar Flats apartments provided by the club in Oakley, and according to defender Tyler Polak, they often get together to watch Champions League soccer games on TV in the afternoons. Polak said the apartments are "very nice," and "it’s neat having everyone together."
Only three of the 25 players on the team are married — goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt, midfielder Paul Nicholson and forward Omar Cummings — and only Nicholson and Cummings have kids.
The majority spend their time with teammates, and they explore the city some, too. Several players said they are gradually learning their way around and finding good restaurants and places to go for entertainment.
Polak is more of a homebody, but he said he looks forward to checking out Kings Island and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden with his fiancée when the weather improves this summer. There are more entertainment options here than his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, he said.
"It’s awesome," Polak said of his experience in Cincinnati so far. "I love the neighborhood we live in. There are actually too many places to get groceries, so that makes it pretty difficult to choose from. Being from Lincoln, it’s a bigger city, obviously, but still a small-town feel for me, which is good. I feel at home here, which is awesome."
Forward Sean Okoli, who is from Seattle and spent last year in Boston with MLS club New England Revolution, said he wasn’t sure what to expect coming into Cincinnati, but the city "has been great."
"I'm still discovering things about the city and trying to find the good restaurants and places to shop," Okoli said. "Besides the inconsistent weather, it's been great."
But do they like Skyline Chili?
So where do these guys fuel up for all of that physical activity?
Okoli’s favorite restaurant is E + O Kitchen in Hyde Park for the food and atmosphere.
Luke likes Montgomery Inn best, and Millay gives a nudge to his part-time employers’ steaks at J Alexander’s.
The Cincinnati favorite fast-food option, Skyline Chili, is still growing on many players.
Millay and Luke both said it was "OK," but they prefer other things. Okoli wasn’t sure he even wanted to try it at first.
Hildebrandt said he and his wife, new Xavier assistant volleyball coach Amber Hildebrandt, can usually be found downtown Sunday and Monday evenings at places like Moerlein Lager House and Yard House.
Both Hildebrandt and Okoli — who have been made SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays on ESPN this season — said occasionally fans will notice them. A season ticket holder recognized Hildebrandt at a car dealership and a member of The Pride supporters group wished him good luck while he was taking out trash at his apartment before a recent home game.
Okoli is one of the easiest players on the team to spot with his Odell Beckham Jr. hair style. A few people have asked for autographs, but most of the time he either isn’t recognized or just gets a simple greeting.
"Every now and then, when we are out to dinner, some people will recognize the group and say, ‘Hi,’ or, ‘Good job,’ or, ‘Good luck’ — stuff like that," Okoli said. "It happens every now and then, but nothing too crazy. If they notice you, they must be coming to games, which is good. But we mostly slide under the radar and that’s fine."
Luke said he likes that he can remain low key here.
A New Jersey native, he is enjoying a more laid back atmosphere than what he was used to being so close to New York City — a welcome change.
"I wasn’t really sure what to expect because I’m from New Jersey and I’ve never really been out West — cuz this is considered West for someone from New Jersey — but so far, I really like it," Luke said. "I’m used to New York City, which is very populated and pretty dirty, to be honest, but out here it’s a nice, mellow scene. You still get the mix of suburban and city life all mixed together."
Millay knew what he was coming back to after three years at UC from 2012 to 2014, and "Cincinnati always felt like home," but the experience as a student was much different.
He’s enjoying seeing Cincinnati and the UC campus in a new light and being part of what FC Cincinnati is building.
"It's the most helpful team I’ve been on developmentally … and as far as the atmosphere, it’s been amazing," he said. "I’ve been to so many games here (at Nippert), and that soccer game (the opener vs. Louisville) was bigger than any football game I’ve been to. Cincy fans tend to leave at halftime a lot, but no one left our game. Seeing everyone come together to support this team has been amazing."
See a full gallery of photos by Phil Didion of some of the FC players off the field.