CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch has continually noted how much more competitive the United Soccer League seems to get each year.
A big part of that is the addition of several former North American Soccer League clubs, which until last year were a division above the USL.
This weekend, FC Cincinnati will get its first real taste of what new additions bring to the USL in 2018. The Orange and Blue (1-0) travel to play former NASL club Indy Eleven (1-0) on Saturday at the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
The USL was granted Division 2 status last year, which helped bring in new players and teams, but with the growth of the league, the NASL began to suffer and eventually canceled this season after clubs like Indy jumped ship.
“They are a big-time team, big-time players,” Koch said. “They've come into the league and made a statement by signing the players they have. They've gone on the road in their first game and got three points ... They are going to be a big-time team with big-time expectations.”
Indy Eleven looks greatly improved – on paper – from last year’s 7-12-13 final record.
With its transition to the USL, the Eleven rebranded in bringing in several new players and hired in January head coach Martin Rennie, who led Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps during the 2011 to 2013 seasons. Among their most recent player transactions, the Eleven brought in goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard on loan from MLS side Columbus Crew SC earlier this month. He’s one of many with MLS experience.
“I think they'll be a very strong team this year,” said FCC midfielder Richie Ryan, who is familiar with Indy from spending the last four seasons in the NASL. “They've got a new coaching staff and new players, but the players they brought in have a good amount of experience. It's going to be a tough team to play against.”
FCC defender Blake Smith actually played for Indy in 2014 while on loan from the Montreal Impact, where he began his career as an eighth overall draft pick. He also played against the Eleven in 2016 and 2017 while with Miami FC.
Despite the changes in personnel and each season bringing different challenges, Smith said Indy has always been a quality club and he doesn’t expect anything less of the Eleven this year.
“When we played in the NASL, it was always a team that would scrap and fight to the end,” Smith said. “It was always a team where you couldn't switch it off for one minute, otherwise they would make you pay, but they have a new coaching staff now and a lot of new players so it might be a completely different style.
"We are not too sure what to expect -- different league, different coach, different everything -- but it should be another tough matchup."
FC Cincinnati beat Indy Eleven 2-1 in a preseason game on Feb. 22 at the indoor Grand Park Events Center; however, the Orange and Blue don’t expect much to be the same this time around.
Indy was playing its first preseason game, while FCC already had two games under its belt, and preseason games are rarely treated like a real game that early on. Koch called that one merely a “training exercise” that his group can’t take much from a month later.
Both clubs are coming off big road wins. Indy beat Richmond 1-0 on Saturday, and FCC collected a 1-0 win at Charleston in its opener on March 17 before taking a bye this past weekend. It was FCC’s first ever win over Charleston, a team that beat the Orange and Blue in openers the past two years.
Ryan said it was helpful to at least see Indy once before, even if the style of play and the players on the field have changed.
“It's strange to go against someone we just played in the preseason and someone you're going to go up against in the league, but it gives you a little bit of an idea what it will look like,” he said.
Some FCC fans made the trip to Indy for the preseason game, but this time buses are making the trip. As of Monday, there were less than 200 pre-sale tickets available in the FCC section.
Smith said he expects a good atmosphere regardless of how many FCC fans make the trip.
“It's a great city, decent fans so it should be a fun game, especially for their home opener,” he said. “Hopefully they will fill the stadium decently, but at the end of the day, for us, it's just about getting on the pitch and taking care of business."
FCC expects Indy to be one of its biggest rivals, given how close in proximity the clubs are. The teams play again in Indianapolis on May 2 and in Cincinnati on Sept. 29.
“It's awesome,” Koch said. “Anytime you play teams close by, whether it's Louisville, Columbus, Indy, those are major rivals. We'll be excited to have some of our fans there with us as we go into battle for the first time playing for three points.”