CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati is no longer satisfied just with improving the club internally.
An aggressive approach to finding immediate results has led to a handful of player acquisitions this season. It backs up the team's ambitions for a United Soccer League championship.
Six weeks into its second season, FC Cincinnati already has brought in three new players. The club made one in-season addition last year, picking up since-departed Casey Townsend just before the USL roster freeze on Sept. 6.
“Obviously, our franchise is well-established now,” FCC President and General Manager Jeff Berding said. “We have a new coaching staff and we're working well together to assess our roster and where there may be good opportunities to improve."
Berding added that if opportunities arise, the team will evaluate them to see if they make sense to pursue.
One of those opportunities recently presented itself, and on Wednesday, FC Cincinnati announced a deal that sent forward Andy Craven to Western Conference foe Oklahoma City FC. In exchange, FCC receives Danni Konig, a 6-foot-2 striker who scored 22 goals in 2015 while leading the Energy to the conference final.
Konig arrived in Cincinnati on Tuesday and met his new teammates at the end of practice. He will be available for Saturday’s home game against Orlando City B.
The signing followed a short-term loan addition of Columbus Crew SC midfielder Cristian Martinez, who was brought in for last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Richmond and now is back with his Major League Soccer club up I-71. FCC also picked up former English Premier League defender Justin Hoyte after the first game of the season, but he has been out since injuring his hamstring in his debut April 9 at Bethlehem.
FCC first-year coach Alan Koch said the Konig acquisition was one that made sense for both his club and OKC Energy. Craven had spent part of last season there and will have the opportunity to start with his former team. Craven played three games with FCC, coming off the bench, and was handed a four-game suspension as the result of a red card in the April 29 match at Bethlehem. He has three games left to serve out his suspension.
Konig’s production was down last year, compared to his 2015 USL MVP finalist campaign, as he registered just five goals and four assists in 32 games. Koch said he believes Konig just needed a fresh start and FC Cincinnati can provide that.
“When they mentioned they were willing to trade Danni for Andy, it was something we thought about," Koch said. "I've come from the Western Conference the last two years and I've seen what Danni has done, and anyone that scores 20 goals in a season like he did in 2015 is obviously going to be very exciting for the group.
“He's a big, strong, quick attacking player who knows how to score goals and I think it was a good move for Andy to go there and get a chance to go be in their starting 11.”
Konig fits the mold of the center forward position normally held by Djiby Fall, who has four games left to serve on his six-game suspension but leads the team with six goals this season.
Evolution of a club
Koch said in some ways, FC Cincinnati has to be more aggressive about adding players when they become available, just to keep up with the competitiveness of the league. The USL continues to grow and has gained even more prominence after moving up from Division III to Division II status in the United States soccer pyramid.
“I think it's an evolution of a club,” said Koch, who spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons as Vancouver Whitecaps 2 coach. “Last year was the first year of this club and had a decent year and stuck with one core group. We're trying to grow.”
Berding said the approach last year was “to have a level of stability throughout the season,” but the first year of the club was a learning process for everyone. FC Cincinnati did well enough to finish third in the Eastern Conference and earn a home playoff game, but the Orange and Blue did not make it out of the first round.
The early exit could have been attributed, in part, to a lineup worn down by a long season. Harkes tended to stay with the same 11-14 players every game. Townsend was brought in only after Omar Cummings suffered a season-ending injury in August.
While Berding didn’t want to look too long in the rearview mirror, he did say the in-season signings and potential for more down the road add much-needed depth -- and internal competition -- for a strong run at the title this season.
“Last year, I don't think we were quite deep enough and it's a long season," Berding said. "I think minutes caught up on people and obviously we have the ability this year to have more depth and Ben (Yauss)'s piece in terms of the training, strength training and conditioning to keep guys fit and healthy, I think we're doing more of that this year and that's all a part of growing from a brand new franchise to moving up toward what would be more akin to a top division club.”
The desire to win
As a result of the club showing a willingness to go after new pieces to the puzzle, players that last year grew comfortable in their roles no longer have the luxury of a secure spot.
Forward Andrew Wiedeman said the moves wouldn’t be as necessary if FCC was getting the results it expected. FC Cincinnati (2-3-3) is seventh in the Eastern Conference table entering Wednesday, seven points behind first-place Charleston Battery. Two of its losses account for Bethlehem’s lone wins.
“The results haven't been where they want them, so they went out and got some players,” Wiedeman said. “That's the way it goes. It's two-fold because this is our livelihood. This is how we put food on the table, so when someone comes in, it's someone that's come to potentially take your spot, and essentially take food off your table, but we wouldn't get into this profession if we didn't like competition, so I think we all embrace it, move forward and hopefully it helps us pick up more points as a team.”
The player moves not only reflect the club’s ambition to succeed on the field and in the league, but also prospectively with an MLS invitation, according to Berding.
Koch, with a proven history in the postseason, brings “a heightened level of accountability” in everything from the way he prepares the players for matches, how he approaches training sessions and evaluating talent and even his willingness to improve the roster externally.
He also brings a different background, coming from an MLS 2 side, where he had a large pool of players coming and going on a weekly basis as the parent club saw fit.
“I'm quite comfortable if we bring in a player for a game, and if we have to make changes, we make changes,” Koch said. “We're obviously an autonomous club that we don't have an academy yet, we don't have a reserve team. We have a first team and we have to continue to grow that, as we are, and that's part of us growing the infrastructure of the club.”
While the roster changes reveal differing philosophies between the old and new coaching staff, Wiedeman said it’s only natural for Koch to want to bring in his own players after basically inheriting Harkes’ team.
Berding and Koch both acknowledged they share the same philosophies, though, and the two have been working closely to evaluate situations as teams and agents present opportunities for new additions. The roster now stands at 27, and the USL allows 30.
“You are always looking at ways you can improve your group, and that means getting everything out of every player you have in your group," Koch said. "But if it also means making a move, obviously we have shown we are willing to do that to try to improve the group as we push forward and continue to grow.”