CINCINNATI - Coach Alan Koch had said he didn't think one player would do most of the scoring for FC Cincinnati this year, unlike the past two seasons.
So far in preseason, Koch has been right on the ball.
FC Cincinnati’s first home preseason game Saturday against Nashville, a 2-2 draw at the University of Cincinnati’s Gettler Stadium, featured the team’s eighth and ninth new scorers in its fifth exhibition match.
Newcomers Lance Laing and Emery Welshman scored the goals, but the Orange and Blue let go of a lead late against United Soccer League Eastern Conference rival Nashville, which was awarded a Major League Soccer expansion club in late December ahead of a still-waiting Cincinnati.
“I always say to these guys, 'This is a team. The only way we are going to be successful is if we all go out and play for each other,’” Koch said. “There's not one superstar in this group. There's nobody who is going to go out and score 30 goals this season. It's going to be a committee that go out and play for each other.”
Not one player has scored multiple goals this preseason. Compare that to last year when now-departed center forward Djiby Fall tallied four of the team’s nine exhibition goals. Fall finished as the team leader with 16 total goals, including four game-winners in the run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
In the club’s inaugural season in 2016, Sean Okoli netted 16 of the club’s 42 goals en route to claiming the USL Golden Boot and MVP awards.
FC Cincinnati, which brought in some exciting new players and returned just nine from the 2017 squad, will be more versatile in its attack this season, as the team has demonstrated so far while rotating players and using different combinations.
A year ago – with the roster Koch inherited after replacing John Harkes in mid-February – the club relied mainly on Fall putting away crosses, but the new-look lineup this preseason is treating fans to an exciting, more tactical approach based on a highly-technical possession game that is capable of shifting.
“We give the guys the framework to play, and that's why we train in a certain way. But the game is life and there are certain moments you have to make decisions and sometimes you want to play beautiful soccer and other times you have to be a bit more one-dimensional,” Koch said.
On Saturday, the possession game came back to bite FC Cincinnati at times, particularly in the first half, against a strong Nashville defense. However, as the home team began playing a more direct attack, things picked up against that high-pressure defense, and the Orange and Blue took advantage of some late counters.
That’s how Laing scored to make it 1-1 in the 44th minute. He took an over-the-top pass and launched a rocket from about 25 yards out, just beyond the left corner of the box. That made up for a similar play earlier when he tried to cut inside his defender and had the ball taken away.
Laing said fans can expect more of that kind of direct attack this season when teams put pressure on the forwards.
“Once you are under pressure, there will always be options between me, Emery and guys that have speed to stretch teams, and that's going to always be Route 1,” he said. “We practice that. If you're under pressure, just play it over top and run onto it.”
Welshman’s goal showed some craftiness, as he split Nashville goalie Matt Pickens’ legs at the near post from a tight angle about five yards out. That gave FC Cincinnati a 2-1 lead in the 65th minute.
The club’s first seven goals this preseason had come from forwards Daniel Haber and Tomi Ameobi, midfielders Corben Bone and Emmanuel Ledesma and defenders Garrett Halfhill, Dekel Keinan and Forrest Lasso.
Bone said the variety of goal scorers isn’t just a preseason fluke, it’s a reflection of the talent on this team, which has at least two quality players at every position. With a “more creative, free-flowing” offense, the Orange and Blue should be more difficult to defend, he noted.
“That's the ambition when you bring in attacking players is for everyone to have a chance to score and when you have the chance, to put it in the back of the net,” Bone said. “To spread the scoring around the team shows everyone's capabilities in front of goal and also, if one guy is not having a great finishing day, someone else will step up. That's one of the great qualities of our team, and hopefully it continues.
“We've already shown this preseason that we have multiple guys that can put the ball in the back of the net, and that's going to make it tougher for opponents to scout us and defend us.”
Among the newcomers:
- Welshman brings a résumé highlighted by 16 goals in 18 appearances with Ligue 1 Ontario side Sigma FC in 2014.
- Laing tallied eight goals for North Carolina FC last year.
- Ameobi amassed 21 goals over four years with FC Edmonton.
- Ledesma, a former Middlesborough (English Championship League) midfielder, had 10 goals in 18 games with the New York Cosmos last year.
FC Cincinnati’s struggles in the first half might have been a reflection of two of the top midfielders being absent.
Returning midfielder Kenney Walker, the former L.A. Galaxy player, was away for a previously planned family event, and newcomer Nazmi Albadawi was out with an injury after appearing to tweak his back in practice Thursday.
Walker has been a stabilizing force in the midfield since Year 1, and Albadawi is considered one of the best lower division players in the U.S. He set an NASL record with 10 assists in 2016 and totalled four goals and six assists over 33 appearances last year while helping North Carolina FC to the championship semifinal.
“It's still a new team,” Laing said. “We have guys that came in like two weeks ago, so it's still a work in progress. But I think, compared to when we just started, we are way ahead. You can see that from Nashville, too. They are a new team, but personally I think we are more comfortable playing with each other, and in the second half you saw that.”
Nashville, a first-year club, looks to be a solid competitor in the Eastern Division, much like FC Cincinnati in its inaugural year when the Orange and Blue finished third but appeared much more one-dimensional on offense.
Koch was glad to see his team face some challenges two weeks before the season-opener. FC Cincinnati is unbeaten this preseason and playing at about 70 percent where Koch expects the team to be by the start of the season.
“It's exactly what we needed it to be,” Koch said. “To be honest, I'm glad we didn't win because if we left the pitch winning some people, some players, some fans maybe start to get a false sense of confidence.
"It's exactly what we needed. It's exactly what a USL game will look like when we start playing in two weeks, and that's why we played Nashville.”