CINCINNATI -- Nippert Stadium was eerily quiet Monday morning as FC Cincinnati broke from its final team meeting for the 2018 squad.
Players walked out of the meeting rooms beneath The Bailey, most of them dressed in street clothes, and gradually dispersed.
FCC coach Alan Koch, the man who will lead the club into Major League Soccer next year, chatted individually with a couple of players, but there will be a lot more of that in the coming days. Koch hopes to be able to inform players whether the club wants to retain them by the end of the week.
That's part of what made the end of this season so tough to swallow. The United Soccer League regular-season champions were knocked out in the Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday, abruptly closing the most historic campaign the league has ever hosted and breaking up a special group of players that likely never again will all be together in one room or on one pitch.
Cincinnati, which dazzled through a USL-record 24-game unbeaten streak, will move into MLS with an almost entirely different roster, and the club now heads full-speed into preparations for the jump to the first division.
"There are obviously some players we would like to keep around for next year, and there are a lot of players we would love to keep around but we just won't be able to keep around," Koch said. "That's the reality of going from a second tier to the first tier and trying to build the best possible squad for next year.
"... This has been a historic season in terms of most points ever achieved in the USL, the unbeaten streak, the most consecutive wins. We are incredibly proud of all the players, but we are going to have to make some very difficult decisions obviously. Some players will be rewarded for their efforts, and some players we just unfortunately won't be able to reward because we've got different mechanisms ahead of us in terms of acquiring players and we have to do that the best we can."
FCC already has two players signed for next year, as MLS veterans Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe inked deals July 30 and finished the season on the USL team, but only a handful of others from the group will join them. Koch has an idea how many but didn't want to say.
For the players, they understand the situation but can't help feeling a little stir crazy waiting.
"It's an interesting situation," midfielder/forward Jimmy McLaughlin said. "I think this is one of the more interesting offseasons for all of us. Not many times does a USL team make a jump to an MLS team, so obviously things change whenever you move up a level. We understand the realities of the business. They are going to have to make some tough decisions, so it's a little bit different. But at the same time, that's professional sports. We're ready for whatever, and we'll see what happens over the next couple weeks."
As decisions are made with the current players, Koch, Luke Sassano and their new scout staff members will be scouring the globe for additional talent to bring in via loans, free agency and the international transfer window in January.
Cincinnati also will be able to draw from the expansion draft the second week in December -- expansion clubs are allowed to take one unprotected player from any five teams in MLS -- and the SuperDraft on Jan. 11.
Koch pretty much rebuilt the team last offseason after inheriting the 2017 roster from former coach John Harkes, and now he's ready to start from near scratch again. He was potentially going to be back on the road as early as Tuesday.
"It's not fun building a team every single offseason, so I hope this is the last offseason we really have to go out and do that," Koch said. "I felt last year at the end of the year we had to do it, and obviously it was vindicated by the success we had this year. We need to do it, but it takes a lot of work to go source all these different players, and we're going to have to go do it again this year now, too, which we're excited and ready to embrace that challenge.
"It's nice having a bit more support with Luke helping us, and ... we've obviously put scouts in place, too, to help us. But there's a lot of hard work ahead of us."
FC Cincinnati will be looking for players that match the club's philosophies -- high character has always been a priority -- but also the style Koch wants to play.
That might look a lot different in MLS next year, because unlike in the USL, where Cincinnati had the largest payroll by far, the Orange and Blue won't be able to match some of the larger-market clubs that have seemingly unlimited resources at their disposal.
"Going into MLS, we're not going to have the top resources in the league," he said. "The resources determine how you play and the system of play. We're going to try to continue to play beautiful soccer, but there are going to be moments next year we're going to have to adjust how we play certain games, and we have to have players that will suit that adjusted style of play."
It will be an adjustment for fans, too. Many grew attached to this year's players; but some of the best USL talent just won't make the cut in MLS.
Still, there is plenty to look forward to.
"The rough side of the business is there will be a lot of new faces next year," said goalie Spencer Richey, who was on loan from MLS club Vancouver Whitecaps this season. "That's just kind of the way it is when teams get promoted or selected as an expansion team, as they did here, so there will be a lot of change -- but a lot of exciting change, and I think they'll enjoy it."