Looking for continuity, FC Cincinnati will keep at least 16 of this year's 26 players next season

Others, including Okoli, still could sign
Looking for continuity, FC Cincinnati will keep at least 16 of this year's 26 players next season
Posted at 9:00 AM, Nov 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-20 10:27:15-05

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding understands that with any third-tier sports league, players are going to come and go.

However, there's something to be said for continuity within a club: It helps with the team's on-field chemistry, and, just as important, it builds a team fans can grow to know and love.

That's why Berding hopes to bring back as many familiar faces as possible from the club's inaugural United Soccer League season, as he and coach John Harkes work to build the 2017 roster.

As of Thursday afternoon, 16 of the 26 players on the roster at the end of last season already were under contract for next year, either by way of re-signing or already being locked into a multi-year deal.

"Many guys were under multi-year agreements because not only did we believe they would be quality players, but quality players with high character who would help us build our club in the community, be ambassadors for FCC and build a connection with fans," Berding said. "It's a two-way street. We want fans to love our players and franchise like we love our city and players. It's part of professional sports. You have young players that grow to admire the pro sports athletes and look to emulate players on the field. Fans get excited to meet the players, and that's all a part of what we're building."

Among the returning players are USL Goalkeeper of the Year Mitch Hildebrandt, defenders Austin Berry, Harrison Delbridge, Derek Luke, Pat McMahon and Tyler Polak, midfielders Corben Bone, Jimmy McLaughlin, Omar Mohamed, Francisco Narbon, Paul Nicholson and Kenney Walker, and forwards Omar Cummings, Antoine Hoppenot, Casey Townsend and Andrew Wiedeman.

The club does not disclose details of player contracts, so it is unclear, other than Hildebrandt, which players re-signed and which were already under multi-year deals. The 27-year-old Hildebrandt wasn't among the original 15 players announced as returning when the team put out a news release Monday, but FC Cincinnati confirmed his re-signing Thursday.

"It is extremely reassuring to know that we have a strong group in terms of talent, leadership and chemistry for 2017," Harkes said in the team's news release Monday. "The group gives us a great foundation to build on. They all understand that while we had a great first year, there is still much more to accomplish, and we are looking forward to next season."

Most notable among the unsigned is league MVP Sean Okoli, who collected the USL "Golden Boot" award with 16 goals this season. He said during a recent Cincinnati Soccer Talk podcast interview that other teams have expressed interest in signing him, but his "focus right now is on FC Cincinnati." He is currently home in the Seattle area with family training and enjoying some down time, he told Cincinnati Soccer Talk.

Sean Okoli

After such a stellar season, the favorite forward would seem to have leverage in any negotiations with FC Cincinnati, but if an opportunity with MLS arises, speculation is the 23-year-old Okoli -- a former MLS player who came up through the Seattle Sounders' system -- would move on.

"We would like to have both Mitch and Sean back," Berding said Tuesday, prior to Hildebrandt's signing. "They were both good players for us this year, key contributors. Obviously, they earned league-wide recognition as an indication of their success in 2016. Both were players fans in our community embraced and we hope to have them back."

Okoli would leave some big shoes to fill, but that is the risk that can come any time a club signs a relatively young player.

The USL is full of players looking to move up, seeking to make a comeback or just trying to extend their careers a little longer, and FC Cincinnati had players that fit each of those categories. Its roster contained players ages 19 to 34, with an average age of 24.7.

Players like 34-year-old Cummings, a veteran with MLS experience, is nearing the conclusion of his career but still proved to be a key contributor before a knee injury ended his season in August. Though signed for 2017, his health remains a question. Others, like Berry, Bone, Wiedeman and Walker, have had their go at MLS and would like another chance, while youngsters such as 19-year-old Mohamed and 20-year-old Narbon continue their development with plenty of time left for bigger opportunities.

Berding said it's important to fill the roster with a mix of experience and young talent, because both have value to a club.

"It is a balancing act," Berding said. "We are in an aspirational league and in most cases guys on our roster are aspirational players. They want to play at the highest level, and we want to bring soccer to Cincinnati at the highest level. Hopefully at some point our aspirations meet where we have a chance to move up with players who want to move up and who fans love and know.

"Certainly some players are going to be able to have their aspirations met quicker than we can have the opportunity to move up," he continued, "but we're going to have conversations with people in their best interest."

Season-ticket holder Jared Handra, a board member with supporters group Die Innenstadt, said after years of fans like himself supporting out-of-town clubs to get their soccer fix, it was easy to get attached to the players on FC Cincinnati's first roster. Many of them made an effort to get out in the community and remain accessible to fans after games, so connections were established between the club and its loyal supporters.

Handra expects fans will learn more about the identity that FC Cincinnati wants to create for itself in Year 2, based on which players come back and what new players come in. He isn't worried about losing that sense of connection he felt in Year 1.

"Young guys come through the system and are fun to watch," Handra said. "Some come out of nowhere and do great, and then there is the chance they can move on, but they help the team compete. Then, guys like Omar (Cummings) might be getting to the end and not physically able to do as much, but lead the younger players and serve as mentors, and I enjoy that aspect. I think you need a little of both."

Berding said he and Harkes have developed a system to track players through the various phases of their careers. They try to balance each position group "with a mix of development players, emerging players, prime players and twilight players," so as not to leave the cupboard too bare if some of the younger players seek other opportunities or veteran players can't produce at a high enough level anymore.

That formula paid off in Year 1 with a playoff berth and third-place finish in the regular-season standings, a level of success fans ultimately seem to care about more than which players got them there.

FC Cincinnati leadership at least wants the opportunity to discuss the options before players do decide to move on, especially considering an MLS contract could still send a player back to the USL with many of the MLS "2" sides, where they then would be potentially competing against FC Cincinnati. Players could also leave for better contracts within the USL or second-tier NASL.

Of the 11 players not yet re-signed, Berding said, some will definitely not return, while others are still in the negotiating process. He declined to specify who would not be back for certain.

The USL limits rosters to 30 players, and Berding said the club would keep around 26 again in 2017.

The club's payroll will increase next year, he said.

"As we moved into the offseason, we were cognizant we have players of a high level," Berding said. "When John and I met with each player individually after the season, we said, 'If you or your agent feel there is a better opportunity out there, the door is open, but pick up the phone, because we want to know and discuss it and understand what the opportunity is.' We were very open about that from the start. To some degree that process is coming to a conclusion, and we have a pretty good idea where we are with opportunities that may present themselves."