FC Cincinnati's coach is new, Berry's out and Okoli's gone -- but there's no need to panic

Here are 9 things to know as the new season begins
FC Cincinnati's coach is new, Berry's out and Okoli's gone -- but there's no need to panic
Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-24 07:00:23-04

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati's second preseason wasn't as impressive on paper as its first, but new head coach Alan Koch was satisfied with what the club accomplished -- especially given the circumstances.

Koch replaced John Harkes after Harkes was fired two days before the first exhibition game, and the club had little time to adjust to a coach that had just joined the staff in December.

FC Cincinnati, which hadn't lost a game going into its 2016 opener, opens the regular season Saturday at Charleston following a 2-2-2 finish this preseason.

As the club heads into its second United Soccer League season, here are the top 9 things you should know:

1. No need to panic yet

Whereas last year FC Cincinnati had a little something to prove right away, that wasn't the case this preseason following a successful inaugural campaign. Koch used these games to focus on seeing different lineups, formations and player combinations.

Koch acknowledges he does feel a little behind, so it could be a slow start to the season, but that was the case last year too, even after a successful preseason. FC Cincinnati lost its opener at Charleston last season and went 2-2 before the defense settled.

"Everyone analyzes the preseason to death, but it's a time to try different players, different systems of play," Koch said. "We are definitely doing that, but obviously in this transition we're a little bit behind in terms of where we need to be, but we're trying everybody. We've tried a couple different ways, and we want to give the guys a chance to see what they can do."

2. Berry out to start

FC Cincinnati announced prior to the final preseason game (March 17 against Xavier) that defender Austin Berry, a team captain last year, would miss two or three weeks with an elbow sprain. Although he's an important piece of the club, the defense should be fine with all of its other starters back from last year, including USL Goalkeeper of the Year Mitch Hildebrandt, and the addition of Lakota West High and UC grad Matt Bahner this offseason.

The Orange and Blue played 11 games without Berry last year while he was nursing a quadriceps injury, and Paul Nicholson, who is more of a natural defensive midfielder, filled in at center back. Nicholson has seen some time there this preseason and could find his way back to open the season.

3. Speaking of the defense...

Koch would like to see a stingier defense as the season gets underway.

FC Cincinnati gave up eight goals in six preseason games, including the three goals it allowed in the first two, which was a bit surprising given the number of returners who have spent a whole year playing together. Koch still attributed that to developing chemistry with the other players and adjusting to his coaching, but didn't excuse the fact the defense needs to be better.

"Any time there is a transition, one of the hardest parts to the organization is to be defensively sound, so we've definitely got some work to do with that, and hopefully we can address that," Koch said.

4. Targeting more goals

FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said during the offseason he would like to see the team score 62 goals this season, which is one more than USL champion New York Red Bulls II tallied.

Although Koch doesn't necessarily like to put a number to it, he believes this team is capable of finishing more chances.

It's a lofty goal but not unreasonable considering FC Cincinnati -- a team known for its great ball movement -- failed to finish on so many created opportunities. The Orange and Blue scored 41 goals in 30 games last year, ranking 10th in the USL, and 16 of those goals came from now-departed USL MVP and Golden Boot winner Sean Okoli -- nine off penalty kicks.

"I think we've shown we can score," Koch said. "I would still like to see us create more opportunities, but we know if we get those options our players can take their chances."

It will be interesting to see how the wider field at Nippert Stadium -- work was done this offseason to move to FIFA/MLS standards -- plays a factor in that.

5. Who is Alan Koch?

FC Cincinnati hired the former Vancouver Whitecaps 2 manager as an assistant coach and director of scouting and analytics in December, and he had only actually been working with the players for a few weeks before the sudden firing of Harkes on Feb. 17. Koch was immediately promoted, and the next day FC Cincinnati left for its preseason training trip to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where the club went 0-2-1 against some quality competition.

FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch, left, talks with forward Andrew Wiedeman before a preseason game against the Chicago Fire. (Photo provided by FC Cincinnati)

"I guess I was the benefactor of circumstances," Koch said shortly after his promotion. "Thankfully, I've been a head coach for almost 15 years now, so I have a great body of work I can rely on to get the ship going in the right direction."

Koch was hired as the Whitecaps 2 manager just weeks before the 2015 season -- the club's inaugural campaign -- and guided the club to its first playoff wins last year before it fell in the Western Conference final to USL Cup finalist Swope Park. Koch’s other head coaching experience included stints at Simon Fraser University, an NCAA Division II school in Canada, where he compiled a record of 126-21-7 in seven seasons, and Baker University in Kansas.

His preferred playing style is similar to what FC Cincinnati did last year -- attacking with a focus on possession -- and he notes that every team he has coached has "scored a lot of goals."

6. The new Okoli

So, who will replace Okoli as the go-to scorer and center striker?

Koch said he thinks the team will make up for that lost production through a committee of players, but he does seem to favor veteran Djiby Fall up top. Fall, a 6-foot-2 Senegal native, led the team with four goals this preseason.

"He's big, strong, a great outlet, and under pressure, you can play it into him and he can hold up and, obviously, when you get in the attacking third, any kind of cross, he's going to be a huge threat," Koch said. "Where we're at right now is the players still have to develop those relationships. They are still figuring out their strengths and weaknesses, but we know he's good in the box, so we need to get the ball in the box from wide areas and he will take care of business."

7. Projected lineup

It's tough to predict the starting lineup, given how much it changed in the preseason, but Berry's injury makes the defense a little easier to figure out for the start. Hildebrandt returns in goal, and the four defenders will be some combination of Harrison Delbridge, Tyler Polak, Nicholson, Bahner and Pat McMahon.

Koch seems to prefer a 4-1-4-1, but also used a 4-2-3-1 to open the final two preseason games.

From there, you could see returning midfielders Kenney Walker, Corben Bone, Jimmy McLaughlin, Aodhan Quinn and forwards Andrew Wiedeman, Kadeem Dacres, Fall and Daryl Fordyce, among others.

"We've got a good core back from last year, so that helps, and then we added some really good new players, so we have a lot more depth," McLaughlin said. "We want to win the Cup, and we've got the talent to do it."

8. Tough competition

The 30-team USL, now considered a Division II league, continues to get better every year, and Koch said the Eastern Conference should be especially challenging this season with the addition of former North American Soccer League clubs Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury.

New York Red Bulls II return to defend their title, and Louisville City – which finished second in the Eastern Conference ahead of FC Cincinnati -- will continue to test the Orange and Blue as one of their biggest rivals.

"The challenge in this league is it's very competitive and it's getting better and better every year, so it's not going to be easy, but we have a lot of talent and hopefully we can squeeze every drop out of every player," Koch said.

FC Cincinnati plays its home opener April 15 against St. Louis FC, which moved from the Western Conference, and the first meeting in the battle for the River Cities Cup with Louisville City takes place April 22 at Nippert.

9. New attendance goals

FC Cincinnati averaged 17,296 fans per game and set multiple single-game records, as well as the season attendance record, for the USL last year while selling 6,000 season tickets.

The club already has topped 11,000 season tickets sold this year, and Berding said this offseason that 20,000 fans a game should be in reach this year.

Those attendance figures become increasingly more important this year as Major League Soccer will be watching closely with plans to choose two of its next four expansion clubs by the end of the year. FC Cincinnati was one of 12 to submit bids for consideration.