CINCINNATI - FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding has spent a lot of his time the past several months working to bring Major League Soccer to the Queen City.
Much of the attention has centered around locking down a site for a soccer-specific stadium required by MLS to win an expansion franchise, and the club made big strides Friday in getting crucial City Council support to build in the West End.
However, the shift on Saturday turned back to the pitch, as FC Cincinnati set to play its home opener against Louisville City FC. Berding took time before the game to talk all things Cincinnati soccer with WCPO.
Q: The roster really changed a lot this year. How did you feel it came together?
A: “I think really we were evaluating our roster all of last year, and the USL continued to get better. I think we understood that as we prepared for this season we would be in a position with a lot of the contracts expiring to really improve the roster across the board, really at every position. We thought we had nine guys that we were excited to bring back and that would put us in a position to add 16 or 17 new players. Clearly, given the great fan support we have, the business support, we'd have some resources to go out and identify the best players we could find to bring to Cincinnati. I think the environment we have here at Nippert is very unique in this country, and it would be attractive for players to come play here. So, Alan (coach Alan Koch) and I worked to develop a target list of players we wanted to talk to. We had an approach where Alan was going to meet with them to watch them train or play, but really to make sure the character was strong to make the culture in the locker room as strong and positive as we could get. And we sort of went through the process as soon as the season ended, where he got on the road and started talking to guys. We had the resources to put behind it, and we were very fortunate to get the guys we targeted to come here.”
Q: Alan Koch said he wanted to build more depth. Was that your top priority?
A: Yes. Last year we had a great Open Cup run, but clearly we prioritized the Open Cup because of what it would mean for the club on a national stage. But certainly we paid the price in league play, and if you look at the beginning of the year, we had some challenges. We weren't ready for the preseason preparation and some of the changes that were made, then Djiby (Fall) gets suspended for a lengthy period and we just didn't have the depth to overcome some of those challenges. This year the intention was really across the board to get two starters at every position as best we could with the idea that competition breeds excellence. We started the preseason a little earlier this year, and the expectation was with so many new players we needed that extra time to come together. Alan has a very strategic approach, and the extra time sort of enabled him to teach the guys how we wanted to play.
Q: Were you any less involved than in the past just because of all that was going on with the MLS bid?
A: The way we've worked up to this point has been Alan and I talk throughout the year about how players are performing. We obviously watch the teams we are playing. Last year we kept an eye on the NASL, who were the top performers in the NASL on a weekly basis. We identified where we needed to improve. Again, the league has improved every year, and I think once Alan and I had an approach of where we wanted to prioritize - a lot of this is resource allocation and who were the players we wanted to bring to Cincinnati that we thought could really help us - his job is then to go out and make sure it's really the right fit and then it's my job to make sure the budget allocation works.
Q: With all the costs of getting into MLS with the stadium and franchise fees, I've already seen some fans questioning whether there will be anything left to get big-name players. Will those expenses impact the player salary budget in the future?
A: We have three underpinnings of what our brand is in this market, and it has been since we launched the franchise. We want to be a winning team. We want to be a family-friendly club. We want to be a franchise that's visible in the community. Those are the three pillars, so we will go after it every single year in a quest to bring a trophy to Cincinnati. That isn't going to change.
Q: So the goal is a championship but, as you mentioned, the league gets better every year and with the addition of more NASL teams like Indy Eleven, what are your realistic expectations for this season?
A: Our expectations are we should be one of the best teams in the league. There are a lot of good teams out there, and we're respectful and there's no words that I am going to say that will result in some outcome. You have to earn it each and every week. We've learned that these two years, this is a really hard league. But we certainly think we have the roster, the character and the coaching where we should be competing for three points every week. At the end of the year, we think we'll be right there and then it just becomes a one-game-at-a-time tournament, who's hot at the right time, and obviously home-field advantage matters. We saw last year that matters in this league, so we'd like to be playing in front of our fan base each and every playoff game if we could, so that certainly would be the goal.
Q: Road wins were hard to come by all last year. I think there were four wins and 12 total points earned on the road. So, can we read anything into the fact this team is 2-0 on the road?
A: We turned over two-thirds of the roster. We started a week earlier this year to try to be ready for Week 1. We'd never beat Charleston, let alone on the road, of course. Indy we knew would be tough, their home opener at Lucas Oil, first game in this league. But there's no question we think the character in the locker room, the experience in the locker room, sort of what I call the tough mentality, is good enough to go get three points on the road. We've seen evidence of that the first two games.
Q: Is there a style of play you prefer and what are you hoping to see in the way the team plays? Have we really seen the way this team is capable of playing yet?
A: I think that the approach when you're on the road, it's just go for three points and nothing else matters. If you can get three points on the road, you've had a great game. When we're at home, obviously playing in front of a big crowd, this is a wider field for the most part. We have a lot of attacking talent and a lot of space for our players to be creative out on the attack. We want to possess the ball and we want to work that possession into the attacking third and create chances. I think we'll see a lot of that this year. Again, on the road, we haven't been as clinical in the attacking third as we want to be, but on the other hand we've gotten results, so that would be one piece. The other piece is I think we have a tough team, a strong team, a team that doesn't back down from a challenge, a team where the guys have each other's back and have a toughness with their mentality that I think represents the people in this market in Cincinnati.
Q: Looking at the schedule, it's pretty packed in July. Are there plans for an international friendly?
A: July 28, whatever that Saturday is, is the goal. We're working on it. We're in multiple conversations with big international teams on a couple different continents. To be honest, it could be more than one. We've had other people pitching us other periods beyond July. Whether that fits or not, it probably depends on the (Lamar Hunt U.S.) Open Cup. If we're playing Wednesdays and Saturdays in Open Cup it would be pretty hard to squeeze another one in.
Q: How are things looking for Cincinnati's bid to host Gold Cup games and also bringing the World Cup her as part of the U.S./Mexico/Canada bid?
A: The Gold Cup, I was in Santa Clara for a meeting a couple weeks ago, and I feel really good we will have a shot to host at least a match or a few matches in the Gold Cup next year, here at Nippert Stadium. We're obviously excited about that opportunity. We will obviously wait patiently. We're humbled. We've never had the opportunity before, but certainly hopeful. Then, the World Cup in 2026, obviously the united bid of U.S./Mexico/Canada has to be awarded hosting opportunity, but if we're hosting here I would expect Cincinnati to have a shot. We've become sort of the soccer capital of the U.S. There's a lot to like. They want to bring soccer to new markets and help build new markets, and it would mean a lot for our region to have the opportunity.