CINCINNATI -- The past five months have been a whirlwind for FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch.
But it’s been an experience he said he wouldn’t trade for anything.
FC Cincinnati gave Koch a chance to prove himself with a quick promotion from new assistant coach after the sudden dismissal of John Harkes just two weeks into preseason training Feb. 17. Despite a bit of a shaky start, the former Vancouver Whitecaps 2 manager seems to have passed the trial by fire.
While managing the second-year club through difficulties of a packed schedule and early suspensions, Koch has FC Cincinnati sitting in fifth in the United Soccer League Eastern Conference (just six points behind leader Charleston) and in position to become the first lower division club to make the U.S. Open Cup semifinals since 2011. The squad hosts Rochester on Saturday before resuming Cup play with a quarterfinal match at Miami FC on Aug. 2. They have a little over a third of the USL season remaining.
Koch sat down with WCPO to discuss how he’s managed the rollercoaster that has been his first season as head coach. Here are 9 questions he answered about himself and the team:
WCPO: You were thrown into the fire taking over right before the first preseason game and then dealt some big challenges with the U.S. Open Cup. Are you surprised with how things have gone given all that?
Koch: It's been crazy. Obviously anytime you get thrown into being a head coach of a group in the middle of preseason is certainly not ideal. Every coach would love a couple months and a complete offseason to prepare for the season. The reality is that just didn't present itself this year, and we had to jump in and embrace change and hit the ground running. I'm not surprised with how we've steered things in the right direction and how this group gets better every week. My philosophy is to squeeze everything you can out of every player you have, and we're literally squeezing everything out of the guys and we're very proud with how they are performing.
WCPO: Do you ever sleep? How do you keep yourself energized?
Koch: I've drank more coffee this season than I've ever drank coffee. It's a lot of work, but we will gladly embrace that work. We love the work. It's kind of funny how mine and (assistant) Yoann (Damet)'s sleep schedules are very different. He works late, and I'll get emails with reports from him at 1-2 in the morning and that's when he goes to bed, and I'm up normally at 5:30-6 in the morning and I'm responding to those emails. A friend of ours told us, "You're the perfect coaching tandem because between the two of you, nobody sleeps," but there's probably a four-hour window between 2 and 6 in the morning where neither one of us is working. We've been grinding it out. I look forward to the beach at the end of the season, but we still have a lot of work to do.
WCPO: Things did get off to kind of a slow start and you kept talking about "the process," but was there any time you began to second-guess yourself?
Koch: Not for one second. I know I've used the term "process," and I firmly believe in it, and I believe in what we're doing and I believe in our group of players and I believe in this club. It takes time to build something, and we're getting better from a team perspective every week and from a club perspective every week. As coaches we work with all the other departments in the club too because it's a new club and we're willing to invest everything we can into the club and work with everybody and work together to grow something together. I think people forget sometimes the club is only a year and a half old. The club had a good start in the first year, and I feel like we're really building something very special this year.
WCPO: Are you a patient person by nature?
Koch: Well, I want results. I said the other night I love playing for three points and I love going out and getting three points, but I certainly don't get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. I know what we have to do, and we're going to go out and do it. I think we're almost a product of our own success this year. This long Cup run has created all sorts of fixture congestion and it's created experiences nobody in this club has ever been through before, and that's incredibly exciting. To win so many games in the Cup and still be fighting in the quarterfinals is special for everybody, but it does make our league schedule more challenging, so that's why we've had to rotate and I think some people in this environment have never been exposed to rotation before. There are a lot of things that the soccer community are going through with us at the same time, and it's fun to be a part of a group that's learning and developing.
WCPO: It seems the way you put together your lineups and formations is very much like a chess game. Can you enlighten us a little on how you come up with those changes game to game?
Koch: We analyze the opposition to death. We analyze their team strengths and weaknesses. We make sure we have a projected lineup and 90 percent of the time we get it right, so we have a good idea how they are going to play and who is going to play for them. That makes us then adjust how we may play and pick who is going to play in that particular game. I always hear comments from people like, "Why didn't this player play?" and every time they ask I can give them an answer. Sometimes it goes as far as: "Why did we have a certain player on the bench?" We might utilize them to come off the bench and do something specific in a particular game. This last (league) game (against Harrisburg City) Jimmy McLaughlin deserved to start but I told him, "We're going to put you to the side and we're going to save you, and you're going to go in when they are fatigued and you are going to go out and be successful. He came on with I don't know how many minutes left and went out and scored. It doesn't always work that way, but there is always a plan.
WCPO: Have you always been strong in the scouting department, looking back to when you were even recruiting in college?
Koch: I've had to be because I've been in some places I've had limited resources. I've become a firm believer you have to maximize the most out of every single player you have. I'm glad I've had to go through those types of experiences because no matter where I am, I am always going to have that mentality of literally squeezing the most out of every player you have. That might also be my masters in human resources, which is obviously managing people, and that's my academic background, but I really value scouting and recruiting. I think it's very important to scout players and then go recruit the right players and the right character that will fit the group. I've even looked at certain players this year that some people are like, "It would be amazing to bring that player into our group," but it wouldn't have been the right fit for the way we play and the character and culture we are trying to build.
WCPO: Was there a specific moment you knew you were meant to do this, to be a coach?
Koch: I honestly never thought of being a coach. I played the game as a kid. I wanted to be a professional soccer player. I was a professional soccer player -- not for as long as I would have liked to have been -- and when it ended I had no idea what I was going to do. I went and got into business for six months and didn't enjoy it, and a friend of mine offered me an assistant coaching position on absolute peanuts, and I didn't even think about it for two seconds. I was like, "It's something I'm passionate about." I had no idea about coaching at the time but I literally just rolled with it ever since, and that's been almost 20 years now. I've loved every single season. I don't think about retirement for one single second, and I wish this ride could keep going as long as possible because as much as we put into it, we get out of it.
WCPO: You've been flexible with the lineup and seemingly open to new things, but yet very organized in how you run things. Are you more laid-back at home or a man of routine?
Koch: I'm a man of routine for the most part. I'm pretty intense. I'll have definitely relaxed moments. I like to joke around and have fun at strategic moments, but I think in this business you have to be very business-like, very organized, very regimental, you have to have a huge disciplinary focus because the work we do is so detail-oriented and it's imperative that I pass that on to the players too.
WCPO: You've got 12 league games left and still have the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal to play next week, so what does this team need to do to keep climbing?
Koch: Nothing really changes. We just maintain the "one game at a time" mentality. It sounds very bland to say that, but the second you look beyond the next game, you're disrespecting your opponents. Now it's about getting ready for Rochester and after that it's about getting ready for Miami, but nothing changes from that perspective. We've maintained the same approach all season, and I firmly believe that's the approach you need to have in this business to be successful. We're fighting for a playoff spot and it's highly competitive. We want to finish as high as we can in that table and get ourselves into the playoffs, and by taking it one game at a time in the regular season, it prepares you a lot better for the postseason mentality where it is literally one game at a time.