When FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding laid out his vision for the club in front of fans at an open house event in October 2015, he said the goal was to win a championship by Year 3.
The Orange and Blue delivered right on schedule Wednesday night, but in greater fashion than even Berding probably could have imagined.
FCC clinched the United Soccer League regular-season title (the Supporters' Shield) on the road Wednesday with a 4-1 win over the Richmond Kickers at City Stadium, while extending its unbeaten streak to 20 games, becoming the winningest club in league history with three matches to go and establishing a handful of other new standards.
The shield is the club's first piece of silverware in its last USL season before rising to Major League Soccer next year and gives Cincinnati home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"It's exhilarating," Berding said via phone Wednesday night. "I love my city. Our city is hungry for winning. When our sports teams win championships it brings joy across the city. We know we're a winning city, but we can say it emphatically with our sports teams. It's what we wanted from Day 1.
"We would run through a brick wall for this city, and we're so proud. We set out to deliver championships, that's what it's been about. We want to make our city better. We just happen to be a sports team, and that's why we show up to work every day to make our city better.
"Our first year was about building a strong foundation, our second year was about MLS expansion and the Open Cup -- we set out to make our mark through the Open Cup -- and this year we aimed to win a championship. I can't even begin to say how gratifying this is."
Powered by Emmanuel Ledesma's two-goal performance Wednesday, Cincinnati (22-3-6, 72 points) surpassed USL records previously held by New York Red Bulls II for most wins (21) and points (69) and matched Richmond's record nine-game win streak. FCC can set a record for longest unbeaten streak (the record now is 22 games) by finishing off the regular season without another loss.
Ledesma's brace put him at 16 goals for the season, tying the club's single-season scoring record set by Sean Okoli in 2016, and made him the first player in USL history to tally 15 goals and 15 assists in one season. He already broke the league's assist record (previously 13) in the last home game Sept. 16 against Toronto when he assisted three of the team's four goals.
"Manu has been nothing short of remarkable, but it's not just him," FCC coach Alan Koch said on a conference call with Cincinnati media when asked about whether Ledesma is the league MVP in his mind. "There are players that have set him up and there are players that have scored the goals and he's got the assist. Manu is a pleasure to work with. … He's one of many players this year that have embraced the opportunity."
Nazmi Albadawi actually got FCC started Wednesday with his 10th goal of the season. He finished off a give-and-go with Emery Welshman to give Cincinnati a 1-0 lead in the 16th minute, but Richmond answered with a strike from Heviel Cordoves after a breakdown on FCC's back line for the equalizer in the 32nd minute.
Ledesma scored both of his goals in the five-plus minutes before halftime to put the Orange and Blue up 3-1 at the break, first bending in a corner kick to the far post and then launching a left-footed shot from the outside corner of the box.
FCC, which clinched first place in the Eastern Conference with a win at Penn FC on Saturday, wasn't done.
Shortly after returning from a 90-minute weather delay in the second half, Albadawi found Welshman on the run, as he beat two defenders before tucking a shot past Richmond keeper Brandon Barnes for the dagger in the 63rd minute.
"Our club has been building toward this for three years," Koch said. "There's obviously difficulty in our sport to win a league championship but it's something we all work for every single day. I think Jeff (Berding), the owners, myself and our entire club, at the end of last season, we weren't happy with how we finished in the league. We obviously set about rebuilding a team and putting a team in place that could achieve something like we did tonight.
"It's amazing to see the guys you go to work with every single day … everybody is absolutely ecstatic. It's the epitome of what we do every single day. We all sacrifice so much to achieve this."
The Orange and Blue celebrated on the field afterward and with champagne in the locker room, but the only thing missing Wednesday was the electric crowd that fills Nippert Stadium at home games.
FC Cincinnati will celebrate Saturday with Fan Appreciation Night and a trophy presentation when the club hosts Indy Eleven in the home finale.