CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding had some ideas about what the next steps for his club should be, but after a trip to Europe, he now has a clearer picture of the future.
That clarity comes just in time before Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber visits here on Nov. 29.
Berding returned Sunday from a 10-day trip to England, the Netherlands and Belgium, where he spent time touring facilities, meeting with representatives of several high-level clubs and attending games to get a better understanding of what makes soccer so strong in Europe.
The experience, he said, further energized and equipped him to make FC Cincinnati "the best it can be." The club, coming off an impressive inaugural season in the United Soccer League, is one of many being considered for MLS expansion.
"I've been saying since the USL meetings in San Jose (in late July) that we were going to focus our attention this year on our training facility and a youth program," Berding said Monday. "What I learned over there just reinforced the importance of those initiatives. Over the next three years, as we get close to 2020, I would like to be a very mature club that's doing things at a high level, and I think now I have a much better idea how to get there."
The trip coincided with the Bengals' game against the Washington Redskins in London on Oct. 30, which Berding was able to attend; however, the focus was on soccer, promoting FC Cincinnati and learning from some of the best clubs in the world.
Not surprisingly, his soccer tour began in earnest with an English Premier League match between Crystal Palace -- which FC Cincinnati hosted for a friendly in mid-July -- and Liverpool at Selhurst Park. Berding had a chance to meet with officials from Crystal Palace and Liverpool during the match, then returned to a Palace training session two days later.
Berding said he and Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew discussed a return visit from Palace, training facility priorities, manager and staff match preparation and player development approaches.
"Our team had a good first year," Berding wrote in a blog about the visit with Palace. "But our challenge is to build a sustainable and winning environment and culture. To achieve that, I need to get better and ensure we build sophisticated systems for facilities, scouting, player development and training. And what better place to learn from than in the birthplace of soccer, with another aspiring club blessed with great fans and strong ownership and who have formed a special bond with FCC."
While in England, Berding also attended a Champions League match between Manchester City and FC Barcelona and had a chance to tour St. George's Park, the home of the English National Team, as well as visit the facilities of EPL clubs Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs and Championship League club Aston Villa.
Berding hopes to take FC Cincinnati and some youth coaches to St. George's Park for preseason training and friendlies in the near future, possibly during the 2017 preseason.
His facilities and academy operations education continued in the Netherlands and Belgium, where FC Cincinnati principal Mike Mossel, who is a founder of Dutch Lions Capital Group, guided Berding on visits to Dutch Premier League clubs Ajax Amsterdam and Vitesse Arnhem, a handful of youth training sessions and games, and a Dutch Premier League game between PSV Eindoven and FC Twente.
"The investment in top-level facilities, both for the first team and the academies, was very impressive," said Berding, who also was blown away by the game-day experiences and rituals of the fans. "The academies themselves were very impressive, just the strong coaching culture, emphasis on technical development of the players and literally how at the young ages of 5-6-7-8, you see a pathway where you have the opportunity to ultimately earn, through hard work, a place on the first team. That was prevalent in England and Holland."
Berding said FC Cincinnati is currently working to finalize a legal agreement regarding a site for the club's new training facility, but he could not elaborate. He previously had told WCPO.com the site could be in any of the counties in the Tri-State area.
FC Cincinnati spent the majority of its practices on the turf at Nippert Stadium this season but would like its own training facility with a grass surface and other amenities.
"We feel we're pretty close to proceeding to where we would break ground on a training facility," Berding said.
The youth academy will likely take two more years to put together. FC Cincinnati began with a brief, informal youth training program this summer and plans to expand to a more formal program in Year 2 with the hope to have a full academy set up by Year 3.
"Those are critical elements, a big piece of soccer in the U.S., and the U.S. is following the lead of other parts of the world," Berding said of the academy concept. "Professional clubs have to have academies and homegrown players, so from the ages of 5 and 6 you are making sure they get the technical instruction and coaching that they will need to become good players. They are built up in your culture and your system.
"We have to develop ours, and it was a priority when I went over there, but now I have a better understanding of how it all works, what are some of the key criteria, who are the people that lead that part of a club, what is their background. I had a general idea before, but now I have a picture. It was just words I had read on a page before, but going over and actually touring the facilities, asking questions, meeting technical directors, meeting academy directors, talking to them about how they sync it all up between the first team, the academy and the overall club was very educational."
Both the training facilities and academy will be important factors in MLS consideration, but Berding said his trip to Europe went beyond that.
It also gave him a chance to promote FC Cincinnati and build relationships with other clubs, which could lead to future friendlies or even player loans down the road. Many of the club officials and staff members Berding spoke with told him they think soccer in the U.S. has improved to the point that English players could benefit in their development by playing here.
"The thought that in the very near future some of those top-level players coming out of English academies could be playing in the United States and playing for FC Cincinnati is exciting," Berding said. "They think the quality of coaching and the quality of the soccer experience in the U.S. is getting to a level where that will be worthwhile for them."
Berding said he didn't scout any particular players while in Europe, but he did discuss player personnel during many of his meetings.
That likely won't translate to any new player signings for the 2017 roster, because the soccer calendars here and in Europe do not coincide, but it could turn into something for 2018, Berding said.
"I definitely think one of the outcomes of the trip was a growing awareness of the FC Cincinnati brand, the professionalism of our club," Berding said. "People understand I had 19 years in the NFL, and they understand that's the top of the sports pyramid in the U.S., and people were aware of the Crystal Palace match and how that experience was from some of the things Alan Pardew said publicly.
"I think there could be some player opportunities that result from the trip for certain, but I wouldn't want to single out any particular club. Most of my visits, certainly any meetings I had with technical staff, included conversations about opportunities for some of our players to maybe go their way and maybe some of their players, be it younger prospects or older players that might be in the twilight in their career, have the opportunity to come to FC Cincinnati."
In the meantime, FC Cincinnati is working to re-sign some of its current players who became free agents with the end of the USL season. Berding said some of those could be announced later this week.
"I had a great trip, and I learned a lot, but it was good to be back in the office (Monday) morning," Berding said. "We've got a lot on our plate right now and a lot to look forward to."