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Filling Sean Okoli's shoes will be a challenge, but FC Cincy's Djiby Fall will give it a try

Though it likely will be done by committee
Okoli's golden boot(s) will be hard to fill
Okoli's golden boot(s) will be hard to fill
Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-18 07:00:23-04

CINCINNATI -- Djiby Fall, breathing heavily as sweat pours down his face, stays long after a recent FC Cincinnati practice in the University of Cincinnati's practice bubble and asks teammates to keep feeding him crosses.

The veteran striker doesn't want to quit until he gets that perfect header goal.

FC Cincinnati is hoping for quite a few of those this season. The 6-foot-2-inch newcomer provides a big target in the box for a club looking to replace the production lost in the Major League Soccer promotion of 2016 United Soccer League MVP and Golden Boot winner Sean Okoli.

Sean Okoli left FC Cincinnati to play for New York City FC in the MLS.

Okoli, who normally played as FC Cincinnati's lone striker up top, led the league with 16 goals, and Fall -- a 31-year-old Senegal native who has played for top-flight teams in Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Norway and Belgium -- so far seems the favorite to begin the season filling his spot.

FC Cincinnati closed its preseason Friday at Xavier University and will kick off its second USL season March 25 at Charleston.

"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," said FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch, who replaced John Harkes a month ago. "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."

As high on Fall as Koch is, he doesn't actually expect one player to replace Okoli, who is now with New York City FC.

Koch said it most likely will be done by committee. Fall, 20-year-old Victor Mansaray and Andy Craven all have started games up top this preseason and Daryl Fordyce could be another contributor in that spot.

"Obviously, we don't play everybody at the same time, so Djiby has come in and scored quite a few goals in the preseason, which is great," Koch said. "We can use Victor up there, too; we may use Andy Craven up there. We will hopefully get Daryl Fordyce some minutes as we wrap up preseason, because he is somebody that can play up there, too. There are a group of guys that will come in and replace, hopefully, Sean's output from last year."

In five preseason games, Fall has three of FC Cincinnati's eight goals and is the only one with multiple scores. He could have had another goal in the 2-0 win over the University of Cincinnati last week, but it was called back on a delayed whistle.

Fall, playing in the United States for the first time this season, said he wasn't personally familiar with Okoli, but he had heard how productive he was for FC Cincinnati. Although he isn't necessarily expected to duplicate that success, Fall said it's his job to score goals and that's what he plans to do.

That's why he stays so long after practice working with his new teammates to put the ball in the back of the net.

"When you play striker, your role is to score goals, so for me the most important thing is to help the team win, and we have to play together," Fall said. "If coach says score, that's my job, but otherwise, the team (success) is what I want more than what I want for myself."

Fall said his job also is to help develop young guys like Mansaray, who also has drawn comparisons to Okoli thanks to his shared background as a homegrown player in the Seattle Sounders' system.

He came to Cincinnati on loan from the Sounders after spending the last two seasons with their USL "2" team, earning recognition on the league's "Top 20 under 20" list. Mansaray has followed Okoli's career to some extent, most recently watching his season opener at Orlando City, where he came in late and had two strong scoring opportunities that just missed the target.

"He's a good player, so being compared to him is a good thing," Mansaray said. "There's no pressure at all to replace him. Ugo (Okoli) came out last year and did his thing. I feel like with the squad we have right now, we can come out and do the same and even more, so I'm going to go in when I get my chance and do what I can to help the team out."

Koch likes that Mansaray can play centrally and out wide and brings his own unique set of skills.

"He's very good 1-v-1, and he's also very good at holding up the ball," Koch said of Mansaray. "He's got to work on his combination play, and that's partially because he's a young player, but he's also got to develop relationships with the players, too."

The relationship is especially still building among the midfielders and forwards, the two positions that saw the most additions in the offseason.

However, FC Cincinnati is still hopeful that will come around quickly as it looks to score more goals as a club this season. The Orange and Blue finished with 42 goals last season, 20 fewer than USL champion New York Red Bulls.

Koch believes his squad, which he took over just two days before FC Cincinnati's first preseason game, has the versatility to adapt to whatever defenses throw at it and thinks that could lead to more goals. The 25-year-old Craven -- who spent last season with OKC Energy and Sounders 2 -- is "nothing but pace," he said, which allows FC Cincinnati the speed to get behind the back four. Mansaray can beat his defenders straight on, and Fall can hold up the ball in the middle and feed others or make things happen off crosses.

"We've got different types of players depending on who we play, the way we play and how we play," Koch said. "We have different tools we can use."

Koch isn't worried about finding another Okoli only to lose him a year later, either, but it should help the consistency of the offense down the road that this group brings a mix of veterans and youngsters who are in different parts of their careers.

And the fact that Koch sees a committee of players contributing up top should create a nice balance in the scoring.

"That's the reality of our sport," Koch said of the potential of losing players in the USL. "Our sport is global and there's different levels, too. So when players come in and do well in one league, they move up within the country or another country. It's a nice reward for a player, but we've also got to go fill those voids. I think we have a good group that can fill that void. We just have to put it all together."