CINCINNATI -- It wasn't until after the first nine matches last year that FC Cincinnati finally trotted out the same lineup at least two games in a row.
Even then, the rotations continued.
Head coach Alan Koch never seemed satisfied. He brought in some new players midseason and kept trying to find the right combinations with the group he inherited for his first season -- all while managing a hectic schedule that required giving regular starters some breaks.
Koch completely rebuilt his team this offseason, and the roster is so deep, it begs the question: Will the lineups keep changing just to keep up with the intrasquad competition? FC Cincinnati fans will find out when the regular-season begins Saturday at Charleston, but Koch has a simple plan.
"If we are winning games, we won't be making many changes," Koch said. "If we are losing games, we will be making changes. That's probably in a simplistic form how it's going to be. If guys are playing well, we won't make changes, if they are not, we will be making changes, or if we have a lot of games in a short amount of time, obviously we have to rotate to preserve the players' bodies. It's so long of a season so we have to manage their health and well-being, but provided players are playing well, they will continue to play."
Koch believes he has two strong options at every position, so theoretically, he could have one starting lineup one day and then a completely different group the next game and still feel comfortable. That could be the plan for handling midweek games.
However, Koch also made it clear he is under no obligation to get guys minutes, no matter what kind of talent he is leaving on the bench or even out of the available 18 on game days.
So, for now, the plan is to establish a group of starters and then some super subs to come off the bench.
"Even (Saturday in a preseason game) against Sacramento, we didn't play well, but I looked over at my bench and I knew I had some subs that could go in and make a difference," Koch said. "I think that's nice for a coach when you are managing a bench and you feel just as confident with them as the guys on the field."
Although Koch hopes to be more consistent with his lineups, the competitiveness of the players leaves the possibility for changes.
Veteran midfielder Kenney Walker said it was clear coming into the preseason that no spots were guaranteed.
"Where we ran into trouble last year was how far into the Open Cup we went and then having essentially two games a week for four, five, six weeks straight," Walker said. "I think that's where he got the idea of going two deep at every position so essentially he could play one team Saturday and one team Wednesday or flip flop and give guys breaks, but it's going to be competition all year long to keep spots, win spots. I think it's going to make the team better if guys can keep their head on straight. You might not play for five or six games but if your number gets called, you've got to be ready to play. It's hard, but it's part of the job."
Walker said it was probably more difficult on guys last year when it seemed few knew where they stood because of the constant changes.
Not everyone took it so well when new players were brought on board during the season, either, but with Koch starting fresh this year, everyone came in knowing that roles could change with so many quality players on the roster. Walker is one of three remaining players from the inaugural roster in 2016, along with Corben Bone and Jimmy McLaughlin, and they are among the nine returners from last year, including Sem de Wit, Justin Hoyte, Danni Konig, Garrett Halfhill and Josu Currais, who all were added during the 2017 regular season.
"Early on, I was talking to a lot of guys that were here last season but mostly me, (former player-turned-assistant) Austin (Berry), Corben and Jimmy, I was like, 'This year feels a lot more like the first year because there were a lot of guys coming in to start new,'" Walker said. "It rocks the boat a little when you're bringing in guys midseason, but I think that was part of Alan coming in and taking the head coaching spot and bringing in guys that he felt could improve the team. Some guys took it well and some didn't. At the end of the day, we had a decent season, but I think starting fresh with everyone this year, everyone is fighting for spots. No spots are guaranteed. It will be good, and everyone has each other's backs. We just have to put it together for the first game and go from there."
At the conclusion of the preseason slate, Koch still wasn't set on a lineup. It didn't help that the final big test Saturday against Sacramento Republic FC was such a poor showing, but he said he wouldn't make any rash decisions based on one game.
FCC was expecting Charleston to play a similar formation to Sacramento's 4-2-3-1 and hopes to come out better prepared Saturday, but Koch feels confident in his group regardless of what style the opposition brings.
"We have different types of players that can play against different opposition, and that's a huge part of it," he said. "This time last year we were still trying to figure out what we had, what we liked, what we didn't like. I think now we have a far better handle on what our group is like."
The team's mentality took a giant shift this week in practice in preparation for the opener. Although FCC had opponents to get ready for all preseason, the focus was still on generally getting ready for a seven-month grind to a hopeful third postseason.
Now, it's back to the "one game at a time" approach.
"We've been preparing for 34 games," Koch said. "Now we prepare for one game. It's very, very different. Now we present to the players an opposition scout.
"We may adjust a couple things based on opposition (and) we may reinforce things we've done well in preseason, but we also have to address some things that haven't worked well in preseason. We lost one game in preseason, and we feel very confident in the group, but I say it all the time, this league gets better every single year.
"I would not be surprised if the whoever wins the Eastern Conference this year wins it with the least amount of points ever because there is so much parity, which makes for an exciting challenge every single week."