FC Cincinnati coach John Harkes can always find ways for his team to improve, but he can’t complain about where the club stands at this point in its inaugural season.
Halfway through its United Soccer League Eastern Conference schedule, FCC (8-2-3) sits in third place heading into a key match at division leader Louisville (10-1-4) on Saturday.
The Orange and Blue can close the gap to one point with a win in a match deemed the USL “Game of the Week.” FCC lost 3-2 to Louisville at home on April 16 and faces their “River Cities Cup” rival three times this season.
“We're ahead of a lot of teams that came out of the gate as expansion clubs, all the way from USL to MLS, so I'm proud of the guys and where we are,” Harkes said. “We keep pushing the envelope at the top of the league, and it's fantastic.”
Here’s a look at the Top 9 things we’ve learned through the first half of the conference slate:
1. FCC is a hit.
FC Cincinnati averages a league-best attendance of 16,326 (selling almost 5,000 more tickets per game than the next-best team), has twice set USL single-game attendance records and still holds the standard at 23,375 tickets sold.
It’s safe to say, professional soccer finally has caught on in Cincinnati.
“What an incredible atmosphere to play futbol in,” Harkes said. “It's absolutely brilliant. ... You're always going to see a good game in this stadium. We're not always going to win. It's not always going to be like that, but we're competitive and using the audience there as the 12th man.”
The league average is 3,522 fans – up slightly from last year.
2. Preseason success was no fluke.
Players said they gained some confidence in the preseason when FCC took home the IMG Suncoast Classic trophy after going 2-0-1 in its first ever exhibition games. However, the club still didn’t know what to expect with the start of the USL schedule, and it took a few games for FCC to gel.
Cincinnati opened the regular season 2-2 but has not lost a game since dropping a 3-2 decision at home against Louisville. They bounced back with a nine-game unbeaten streak and haven’t dropped below fifth place in the conference in that span.
3. It’s a strong league.
Five of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference have more losses than wins, but 12 clubs have three draws or more, and the league has seen a substantial number of close games.
FCC has played just two matches that didn’t end in a draw or a one-goal differential on the scoreboard.
“You can never judge a team by its record, but especially in this league, the parity is just tremendous and the level of competition at all levels — USL up to MLS — seems to be rising,” Harkes said.
4. Individual awards, highlight reels piling up
FC Cincinnati isn’t the highest scoring club in the USL (it actually ranks fifth with 21 goals), but it’s hard to imagine another team tallying more fantastic goals.
In eight out of 13 weeks, at least one FCC player has landed in the USL’s Top 5 Goals of the Week.
Sean Okoli has earned that honor three times this season, including for his first goal of the year at Bethlehem Steel, his scissor kick score against Charlotte, which landed him on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day, and his second goal of the game against Montreal on June 11.
Eric Stevenson (vs. Toronto FC II), Andrew Wiedeman (at Harrisburg City), Jimmy McLaughlin (vs. Pittsburgh), Kenney Walker (at Orlando City B) and Austin Berry (vs. Louisville City) also have been recognized. Many of those goals landed players on the USL Team of the Week, as well – Okoli (two times out of three), Stephenson, McLaughlin and Walker all made the team in the same weeks they were recognized with Goals of the Week.
“We would like to take advantage of more opportunities earlier in games, but it’s a process, and to be fair, the goals we are scoring have been fantastic,” Harkes said.
Goal-scorers aren’t the only ones being recognized. Defender Harrison Delbridge also has made the Team of the Week twice, and goalie Mitch Hildebrandt made SportsCenter’s Top 10 with a double save at Toronto in April. Midfielder Corben Bone ranks in a tie for first for most assists with four, including last weekend’s needle-threading pass to set up Stevenson’s first goal of the season.
5. Okoli is the team’s superstar.
Everyone knows to look out for Okoli by now, but he’s playing some of his best soccer right now. The former MLS player ranks fifth in the USL with seven goals, including four in the last four games.
He has been a threat as FCC’s lone forward up top most of the season, but went through a dryspell in which he had several close chances that he said were just “unlucky.”
Okoli was with the New England Revolution last year but saw time in just five games.
6. Defense improving
After giving up six goals in the first four games, FCC has allowed six goals total over the last nine league games, including two shutouts. Louisville is the only team to score more than one goal against Cincinnati.
Hildebrandt, who has become a fan favorite while drawing “Mitch Says No” chants after saves, ranks third among the USL’s goalkeepers with 38 stops while playing behind a growingly steady defense. Paul Nicholson has joined Delbridge at the center back position ever since Berry went down with a leg injury April 29 in practice, and outside backs Tyler Polak and Pat McMahon have started every league game.
The biggest knock on the club has been its inability to close out matches late – having allowed goals in the 90th minute or later in four games, which of which cost points.
“It doesn't matter when the goal comes,” Harkes said. “You can't overthink that and think we're in trouble. You want to stay positive as much as you can, and we've made a lot of progress in a short period of time. It's just, how do we get ourselves in better spots to avoid that? And that's all we're doing.”
7. MLS taking notice
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber told media at the Associated Press Sports Editors meeting in late April that St. Louis and Sacramento are the leading candidates for the next round of expansion and listed Detroit, San Diego, San Antonio, Austin and Cincinnati as other candidates, in that order of priority.
MLS hopes to expand to 28 teams by 2020, and four markets already have been established. That leaves four spots for seven currently contending cities. FC Cincinnati has made its MLS ambitions known since launching in August.
“We’re respectful of their process,” general manager Jeff Berding said last month. “We wanted to state our ambitions as we launched and let it be known what our goals are, but every day since, we’ve been focusing on being the strongest USL franchise we can be. We’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves, but we believe if we do everything we can to be the best USL team we can, in that process, we will have established ourselves as worthy of consideration during expansion talks.”
Cincinnati has invited MLS officials to attend a home game, but nothing has been scheduled.
8. Top-notch staff
This is Harkes’ first stint as a head coach in the professional soccer ranks, but his knowledge of the game was never a question, and the former U.S. men’s national team captain has proven capable of putting together a talented squad in a short time. With help from assistant Ryan Martin, Harkes rounded up 10 players with MLS clubs on their résumés and has his 25-man team playing at a high level despite getting on the pitch together for the first time Feb. 4.
“I'm proud of our staff,” said Harkes, who brings an ‘attack is the best defense’ mentality and stresses the importance of a strong possession game. “Ryan and (goalkeeper coach) Jamie (Starr) and Aaron Powell, our athletic trainer, they've all done a tremendous job. There is a lot of dedication they've shown because when you're doing well and there are higher expectations, it puts a lot of pressure on you to perform, and they've done a great job.”
9. Nippert suited for soccer
Any doubts about how the University of Cincinnati’s football stadium would reconfigure for professional soccer have been put to bed. Though it’s not the preferred natural grass surface, the high-quality turf is free of football markings, and the large FCC tarps strategically placed in the corners and top levels of the stands have helped turn the 45,000-seat facility into a great atmosphere for soccer.
The Bailey section behind the north endline especially has worked out nicely to give FCC arguably one of the rowdiest crowds in the league, and the club is continually working to improve the fan experience while at the stadium.