CINCINNATI -- The sting of a first-round playoff exit likely hasn't worn off yet for FC Cincinnati, but planning for next season is well underway.
FC Cincinnati staff didn't even take a day off after Sunday's 2-1 loss to Charleston in the United Soccer League Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Front-office personnel were right back at work with a staff meeting Monday, and in all actuality the club began discussing the offseason plan back in early September. The club will look to build off a banner inaugural season that saw every USL attendance record shattered, a 16-7-8 finish on the pitch, and a top 3 finish in the division, despite the fact that it didn't have one player on its roster this time a year ago.
"We weren't ready for the season to end, but sports sometimes can be cruel," FC Cincinnati General Manager Jeff Berding said Sunday after the loss. "Our fans and our teams (in Cincinnati) are all too familiar with that cruelty and the pain that comes with it. I promise we will let that drive us, and we will be right back at it tomorrow. This is not the end. This is the beginning. We have the advantage next year because we are not building a team from scratch, and the work we begin tomorrow is how do we build from this? We will build from this and we will be better next year. … Everything about 2017 will be better.
"This will not be the end of the story," he continued. "We're still at the beginning of the story for FC Cincinnati. This will be an exciting year, and we look forward to getting out there in the community and with our fans to celebrate what has been a remarkable start to the franchise, to roll up our sleeves together to continue to build this franchise because the future is bright for Cincinnati as a city and the future is bright for FC Cincinnati."
FC Cincinnati head coach John Harkes said the offseason would begin with a little reflection before player evaluations begin as the club develops its roster for 2017.
The staff will hold individual player and team meetings in coming days, including one with the team Tuesday that Berding attended.
"We want to talk about performance," said Harkes, who is on a three-year contract. "We want to talk about the game. We want to break it down, and we're going to go through that from a soccer standpoint, without a doubt, the technical, tactical, the emotions that were there throughout the season and the game (Sunday). Those are the first conversations that will take place, and then there will be meetings, Jeff and I. Jeff's done a good job just organizing the postseason, how we're going to sit down with players and collectively take assessment and define what went really well and what we need to work on."
Roster decisions will be a big part of the offseason.
Players' contracts ranged from one year to three, and although Berding cannot discuss individual player contracts in detail, he wouldn't be surprised if there were opportunities for some to move up after the showing of individual talent this season.
"We'll deal with it (the possibility of losing players) as it comes," Berding said Tuesday. "You want players to go out and have success. It's like with (former Bengals defensive coordinator and current Vikings head coach) Mike Zimmer doing so well in Minnesota. That's a mark of success for Marvin (Lewis). If players find good opportunities in MLS, that's good for our players. If those circumstances arise, we feel comfortable that we can fill the holes as needed.
"Expectations are, the majority of the team will be back," Berding continued. "We had a good team for the first year and continuity would be a good thing. There is certainly competition in sports; that's a key part of it. We didn't win the championship, so we have to get better and we will be better because I'll be better, the players will be better and the coaches will be better. We'll add some new players to the mix, and competition breeds success."
Berding said the club has a sense of unfinished business after falling short of its goals to make a deep run into the playoffs, and player evaluation is a big piece of improving the team for next year.
However, there are other ways to help the team's performance and future as an organization -- one being enhancements to the playing field. The pitch at Nippert Stadium will be expanded after the University of Cincinnati's football season ends, which would require some of the lower rows of seats on the east and west sides of the stadium to be permanently removed, and the project is already out for bid.
The renovation would call for expanding the field from 110 yards long and 70 feet wide to 115 yards long and 75 yards wide, according to the club's contract with UC.
"We think that will be great for the fans, great for the team. It will create more space," Berding said. "I think we are a very creative team, a very tactical team, and we will continue to be that kind of team and having that space will make it difficult for teams that want to bunker in because they will have more room to defend."
Charleston was one of those teams that liked to pack it in on defense and shorten the field, and it made it difficult for FC Cincinnati's offense. Most teams that play on football fields have a narrower pitch. A grass-playing surface is something the club will discuss with UC in the future, as well.
FC Cincinnati also has been working to obtain a practice facility of its own, so it won't have to train daily at Nippert Stadium, which would save some wear-and-tear on the turf.
Berding said Tuesday the club is looking at multiple options in multiple counties in the Tri-State area.
"The goal would be next year not to train day-to-day here at Nippert but to have a practice facility with grass, and that's something we've made a lot of progress the last six months or so," Berding said. "That's a priority."
Another area of focus in recent months has been on the player-development side. Many teams around the globe have their own academies, where they can train youth players in their system and style of play and potentially grow their future talent.
FC Cincinnati took the first step in that direction this year with a summer training program for some of the top local youth talent. Berding said the club hopes to take that to the next level in 2017.
"We've been talking to various officials in the youth community and looking at what other teams are doing on the academy side, and we're going to continue to slowly grow our youth program," Berding said. "We dipped our toe in with an informal program this summer, and next year maybe we do something a little more formal, and maybe it will be something more in 2018."
As far as building up more interest among fans, FC Cincinnati hopes to continue to build its audience with the goal of selling 10,000 season tickets. The club sold upwards of 6,000 season tickets this year, and sales are going well for 2017.
Berding said the club is at a 98 percent renewal rate and new season-ticket holders are jumping onboard already, which is another sign of better things to come in FC Cincinnati's future.
"We have an idea where we want to go, and it's just executing it," Berding said.