CINCINNATI -- This time last year, Alan Koch was scrambling.
Scrambling to figure out a plan. Scrambling to fit together pieces of a puzzle that had been thrust upon him at the last minute. Scrambling to make his system work within that framework he had been dealt.
On the eve of FC Cincinnati’s preseason trip to Florida last February, the United Soccer League club made the unexpected decision to fire head coach John Harkes and ushered in Koch as his replacement. Koch had just joined the staff in December as an assistant and director of scouting but only had been working with the players on the pitch for a couple of weeks.
One year later, as FC Cincinnati begins the club’s third preseason in Florida, Koch feels a bit more relaxed. FC Cincinnati opens with an exhibition game against Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution on Tuesday at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
“Any coach needs time to prepare, and you need time to build something,” Koch said Thursday. “We didn't have time last year. Obviously, we all know what happened, and the second it happened, we had to react and try to get something in place.
"To be honest, last season felt like we were fighting against it all season long because we didn't have that time to prepare. This year it's been a lot, certainly not easier, but it's allowing us the time to go do what we need to do to get ready.”
FC Cincinnati went 0-2-1 in Florida last year while trying different player combinations and went through waves of success throughout the regular season. An electrifying run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals was the highlight, but FCC had to claw its way into the postseason and for a second straight year bowed out after the first round. Koch was constantly moving around players and even brought in several new ones while trying to improve the squad on the fly.
Koch is starting anew with a 23-man roster that features just nine returning players from last year. He believes the team is in a much better place entering his second preseason.
“I think definitely going down to Florida, we're not having to react and deal with all sorts of situations, so we're in a much better place as a group,” he said. “I think the players are definitely very unified, which is great to see. As a coaching staff, we're much more relaxed.”
So what is the difference in this squad versus last year’s?
Koch said FCC will be more of a possession-based team, the roster includes “some very good technical players,” and overall “the quality of the group is significantly better than it was last year.” It’s a squad with a lot of versatility, which will give Koch the leverage to try some different formations and ways of playing.
Among the top returning players are Kenney Walker, Corben Bone and Jimmy McLaughlin, who have been with the team since its debut, as well as fan-favorite Josu and former English Premier League defender Justin Hoyte.
Newcomers include two-time North American Soccer League Best XI midfielder Nazmi Albadawi, former New York Cosmos midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma, Jamaican national team member Lance Laing, Irish defender Paddy Barrett, former Israeli national team defender Dekel Keinan and Charleston Battery’s 2017 defensive MVP Forrest Lasso. Goalkeeper Spencer Richey is also on loan from the Vancouver Whitecaps and the team has added former Sacramento Republic shot stopper Evan Newton.
Koch said the club plans to sign at least one more player before the start of the season to replace center forward Tommy Heinemann, who was released Wednesday because of a failed entry physical that his agent rebuts. Heinemann was signed Dec. 5 and participated in the first practice Jan. 17 but has been withheld since then.
The current group is one that Koch feels very comfortable with and confident in, as he has coached at least 13 of them. Five players he groomed while coaching the Vancouver Whitecaps 2 in 2015 and 2016.
“As a coach any time you are familiar with players, it makes your job a lot easier because you know what their strengths and weaknesses are, so you reinforce their strengths and you work with them in the areas of growth,” Koch said.
Bone said the newcomers and returners are meshing well so far. He’s embracing a new role as more of a veteran leader this year.
“I think the locker room is awesome,” Bone said. “I think we've come together pretty quickly, and hopefully this next phase in Florida will be even more togetherness and bonding in a way we can't do here where we all go back to our respective homes and whatnot, so that's just another area we can grow as a team and continue to form that competitiveness as a group and that bond as a team.”
Bone also believes the team will benefit this year from Koch having a full offseason and preseason and he looks forward to seeing how it all comes together in the first game situation.
FC Cincinnati will return from Florida on Feb. 18, then heads to Indianapolis for an exhibition with the Indy Eleven before wrapping up with games at Northern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati and home contests against Nashville SC and Sacramento Republic.
“It's going to be fun," Bone said. "They've done a great job assembling a really talented and character-worthy team, so the sky is the limit.”