CINCINNATI -- Despite having just four months to put together its first roster, FC Cincinnati did well enough last year to earn a third-place finish in the United Soccer League's Eastern Conference and secure a home playoff game.
The club has brought back 19 of the 26 players from its inaugural season and added seven intriguing new pieces to put together what coach John Harkes believes is a championship-contending roster.
FC Cincinnati will officially begin on-field preparations for its second season Wednesday, when training is set to begin at Wall-2-Wall Soccer in Mason.
"You're looking to build on the core and strength of the team, everything the guys had accomplished last year," Harkes said. "You never can be satisfied. You're always looking to add quality, different experiences, different positions and strengthen the group. It will be a great sign for competition within the team, but at the same time, you're hoping the staff brings the team together because the respect and sacrifice has to take place."
Harkes said the club could still add more players. The USL permits 30 on the roster, but general manager Jeff Berding previously said he planned to stay right around 26, like last year.
FC Cincinnati lost leading scorer and USL MVP Sean Okoli, who signed with MLS side New York City FC after notching 16 goals last season. But the team returns its 10 other starters, including USL Goalkeeper of the Year Mitch Hildebrandt. Andrew Wiedeman is the top returning scorer with seven goals and four assists last year, and Harkes noted that another fan favorite, UC product Omar Cummings, who underwent knee surgery after an August injury, is "training lightly" with hopes of returning to the field at some point.
The newcomers include two of Louisville City's top players in midfielder Aodhan Quinn and forward Kareem Dacres, as well as former Montreal Impact midfielder Marco Dominguez and forward Daryl Fordyce, who was North American Soccer League side FC Edmonton's all-time leading scorer. Also joining the club are former University of Cincinnati player and Lakota West High School graduate Matt Bahner, who comes from NASL's Jacksonville Armada; Andy Craven, who spent last year between the Seattle Sounders and OKC Energy; and Aaron Walker, who previously played in Iceland.
"(The roster is) come together excellently," Berding said. "We feel we've put together a very good team again. It was a good roster to build upon, but we've improved it and made it even stronger so we can achieve our goal of winning a USL championship."
Berding said FC Cincinnati didn't score enough goals in 2016, which made Okoli's departure an especially big loss, but the infusion of energy from new players and the cohesiveness of the returning players should make for a more exciting offense this year.
For Harkes, this year is already off to a smoother start because of the comfort of having experience as a team. Last year, the club had less than three weeks to develop on-field chemistry before its first preseason game.
FC Cincinnati responded well in winning the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic at IMG Academy last February in its first preseason competition, including a marquee win over New York City FC, but the club opened the regular season 2-2 before finding its stride during an 11-game unbeaten streak.
"You go through a year of building a club, developing a style of play and execution and the experience of building a club that gets involved in the community and connects with the fan base, and you learn from it," Harkes said. "Those were difficult circumstances, because we had such a short period of time putting together a team in four months. You look at that and bring that value to the table of what they went through and you add different personalities and components to the mix.
"I think you're understanding the steps along the way, going through adversity, learning each other and characteristic traits, and you look forward to the next season. I'm a big fan of promoting from within, giving guys credit when it's due. We did a great job last year but fell short in the playoffs and we want to do better. We're looking to galvanize the tremendous work done in 2016 and make it better in 2017, and we're hoping that unfolds quickly. I'm excited to get started."
FC Cincinnati begins its second year with a slight change in staff: Former Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 head coach Alan Koch steps in as an assistant and director of scouting and analytics, replacing Ryan Martin, who is now the D.C. United academy director. Jamie Starr returns as goalkeepers coach, and Nate Kish will continue to serve as a scout/youth coordinator after assuming that role in July.
Harkes said he won't change much about the way the team trains because he believes in consistency, but there may be certain things he can delve into earlier this year because of the continuity of having so many returning players.
Players understand his expectations, he said, but "you always tweak some things as you go along and as you learn from experiences."
"We'll see how that unfolds as we get into the preseason," Harkes said. "Guys are hungry and, from a club standpoint, we've done a good job of positioning ourselves to be successful."
FC Cincinnati opens its preseason at IMG Academy once again with its first action set for Feb. 19 against USL club OKC Energy.
The final preseason game is set for March 17 at Xavier with the USL season expected to begin the following weekend.