CINCINNATI -- During an open house question-and-answer session with fans last October, FC Cincinnati coach John Harkes was asked to define what he would consider a successful first season.
It was clear then that he had high expectations for a club that was still two months away from signing its first group of players.
"We want to put ourselves in a position to compete for a league championship," he said, while also acknowledging how difficult that would be.
FC Cincinnati has done exactly that by earning a first-round home game as the No. 3 seed in the United Soccer League's Eastern Conference.
But just how hard is it for a first-year club to win a USL title?
As FC Cincinnati prepares to host the sixth-seeded Charleston Battery at 4 p.m. Sunday at Nippert Stadium, here's a look at the history of the USL playoffs and the success rate of the league's current teams in their inaugural seasons.
First-year clubs are still capable
Since the USL re-launched in 2011, two first-year clubs have won titles: Orlando City SC (now in its second season in Major League Soccer) claimed the first trophy in 2011 and finished 15-6-3, and Sacramento Republic FC won the USL championship in its first season in 2014 after going 17-7-4.
Orlando City does get an asterisk in that regard since it had originally been founded as Austin Aztex FC, which played in the USL First Division in 2009 and the USSF D-2 Pro League in 2010 before moving to Florida. The club retained its coach and many players but technically was still a first-year franchise in Orlando.
Getting to the playoffs is an accomplishment
The USL fielded 29 teams this season, six of which were expansion clubs. Of those 23 teams that played prior to this season, 12 made the playoffs (USL or previous leagues) in their inaugural seasons. Seven of them won at least one game.
In addition to Sacramento winning a title, Louisville City FC made it to the USL final last year, finishing 14-8-6, and the Rochester Rhinos made the A-League final in their inaugural season as a club in 1996. Other teams that made the playoffs in their first year include:
- Colorado Springs Switchbacks: Made it to the Western Conference semifinals in 2015
- Harrisburg City Islanders: Made the USL Pro Soccer League quarterfinals in 2004
- LA Galaxy II: Lost in the quarterfinals in 2014
- New York Red Bulls II: Made it to the Eastern Conference semis in 2015
- Orange County Blues FC: Lost in the Western Conference quarterfinals in 2015
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds: Lost in the USL A-League quarterfinals in 1999
- Richmond Kickers: Made the USISL division semifinals in 1993
- Seattle Sounders FC 2: Lost in the Western Conference quarterfinals in 2015
- Wilmington Hammerheads FC: Made USISL Pro League semifinals in 1996
This year's newbies
Four of the six expansion clubs this year made the playoffs, with FC Cincinnati (16-6-8, 56 points) posting the best record of them all.
Rio Grande Valley FC went 14-7-9 to earn the Western Conference's No. 2 seed with 51 points, and Swope Park Rangers (14-10-6, 48 points) are the No. 4 seed in that division. Orlando City B snuck in as the Eastern Conference's eighth seed with a 9-13-8 record.
Bethlehem Steel (6-14-10) did not qualify after finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference, and San Antonio FC (10-12-8) missed out as the 10th-place team in the Western Conference. The top eight in each conference make the postseason.
FC Cincinnati isn't satisfied
While Harkes already calls this season a success in many ways -- and for good reason -- FC Cincinnati still isn't satisfied.
The club didn't take its foot off the gas pedal in its regular-season finale Saturday, using its regular starters despite having already locked up the No. 3 seed, and now looks to keep the momentum going into the postseason. First-round opponent Charleston has won four championships in 22 years, including its last in 2012.
"We've put ourselves in a good spot," Harkes said. "There's a lot of work to be done to cross that next threshold, that next line, but we're going to welcome it. We're going to take it on and we'll see how we do, but win or lose, it's been a great year. We've already had success and we'll keep building on it."