John Harkes has been putting together his team since August — carefully crafting a roster, plotting out his system of play and piecing together a schedule of how best to prepare players for FC Cincinnati’s inaugural season.
It’s all about to speed up rather quickly.
FC Cincinnati officially begins preseason training Thursday in preparation for its upcoming United Soccer League slate, which opens March 26 at Charleston. Before training begins, players will spend this Wednesday going through medicals and team meetings, marking the first time the whole team will be together.
“I'm itching to get going,” said Harkes, the former U.S. men’s national team captain and Major League Soccer veteran. “I’d want Day 1 to start today if I could, but we know it's a process so we've got to be patient. I'm just excited and looking forward to it.”
Harkes got a small glimpse of how his players work together this past week when FC Cincinnati hosted a combine at Wall2Wall Soccer in Mason to allow an additional 29 players to compete for the remaining six spots on the roster.
As the others participated in tryout drills, many of the 18 players who had already signed with FC Cincinnati did some side work to maintain their touches on the ball and fitness levels. Harkes said there haven’t been any organized offseason training sessions, but the staff did put together a program for players to follow, and the coaches have been checking in with them to find out what they’ve been doing individually to stay fit.
So far, Harkes likes what he sees.
“They’ve come in pretty good,” Harkes said. “I’m seeing good chemistry, very good guys on and off the field. I explained before we signed their contracts I expected winners on the field, but to be winners off the field is just as important. We're getting along very well.”
Harkes said Thursday, going into the final day of what he called a “very competitive” combine, that he had already spoken with a few players from the tryout whom FC Cincinnati would like to bring on board. According to general manager Jeff Berding, the staff originally planned to hold two roster spots to fill later on, but the talent at the combine dictated they go beyond the 22 they thought they would enter the preseason with, which he said is a good sign the team is putting together a “great group of players.”
More signings — which are still being negotiated and processed by the league — are expected to be announced by Tuesday.
“When we set to start out back in August, we knew there were going to be quite a few players who would be interested in our club,” Harkes said. “I think we've done a very good job of giving opportunities for players to be seen. I wish we had two teams because we have so many good players here, but that's part of our job as coaches. We understand we have to make difficult decisions, but there are a lot of good guys here — good talent, good personalities, good character with ability. It's been fun every day to see them express themselves.”
FC Cincinnati will begin its practices indoors at Wall2Wall Soccer, but will also use “The Bubble” indoor training field at the University of Cincinnati.
On Feb. 16, the team heads down to Bradenton, Fla., to train at IMG Academy, where they will participate in a four-team friendly tournament featuring Danish Superliga club HB Koge (Denmark), MLS club New York City FC and Úrvalsdeild club Reykjavik FC (Iceland). The tournament will take place Feb. 17-27.
“For me, it's important we got these games and that we'll be at the IMG Academy training and playing in this tournament, because at some point we've got to have a measuring stick to see where we are as a group and also face our challenges and see what our strengths and weaknesses are,” said Harkes, who used some of his soccer connections to make sure his team could get into the tournament. “Plus, the weather conditions will help us get a little bit fitter. Pounding every day in here, it's a great facility but it's not conducive to what we really need to accomplish throughout the preseason. Coming back into town, we'll have to manage what their bodies are like. We don't want to pound them too early. We want to gradually bring them along with their fitness and then prepare them to kick off in March.”
Harkes said players will rotate in and out quite a bit to keep legs fresh, especially with the tournament coming so early in the preseason. FC Cincinnati also considered other training locations, such as one opportunity in Arizona, but the timing and setup in Florida made the most sense.
The players are looking forward to the early challenge, too.
“It’s not intimidating as much as it is exciting,” said Harrison Delbridge, a 23-year-old Australian defender who already has spent two years in the USL. “It’s a good chance to gauge where we’ll be early on in the process. To be able to test ourselves against good competition, it’s exciting. It’s really early, so we’ll see how it goes.”
During its training locally, FC Cincinnati also will play a couple of scrimmages. Harkes said he’s spoken with local universities about an exhibition, and the club also is working to schedule a game against the North American Soccer League’s Indy Eleven.
In the meantime, FC Cincinnati is just eager to get everyone all together for the first time Wednesday and on the field Thursday.
“It’s always interesting when you do something with different players and new players, because you never know what to expect, how you’ll mesh as soccer players and people,” said Antonie Hoppenot, a 25-year-old forward from France who was selected in the 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft and spent the last two years in the USL. “It’s been a good week (at the combine) of being able to get to know each other on and off the field, which is critical for us to have a good season, but we’re ready to get out there and start practicing for real.
“It’s a long offseason for a lot of these guys, so to be part of more of a structured practice and preseason, it’s exciting. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to get at it.”