With six months until its first MLS season, FC Cincinnati has a little time to get a lot done
Laurel Pfahler | WCPO contributor
6:00 AM, May 30, 2018
7:47 PM, May 30, 2018
FC Cincinnati is only about a third of the way through its third season in the United Soccer League, but in just about six months, the club will be full-on gearing up for its first Major League Soccer campaign.
That's quite the quick turnaround for a team trying to focus on winning a USL title before making the jump to the top division.
MLS officially accepted Cincinnati's bid to become the league's 26th franchise Tuesday during a special event at Rhinegeist Brewery in Over-the-Rhine. FCC will begin play in 2019 and remain at Nippert Stadium until its estimated 21,000-seat stadium in the West End is completed in 2021.
"There's no question there is going to be a lot of work involved, but that's why we do what we do," FCC president and general manager Jeff Berding said. "... We celebrate today, but we have a stadium to build, we have a roster to build. We are determined to keep winning this year -- it's a part of our DNA. We will show up tomorrow. We have a plan, so we will show up and execute the plan."
Although there is still much to be done before the expansion draft in December and before kicking off in March, FCC is way ahead of the previous two expansion clubs admitted to the league. Nashville hadn't yet played a season of soccer when it was announced as team No. 24 in December, and Miami was officially awarded a franchise in January with no team name, logo or target start date announced, despite having four years to develop a plan.
New England Revolution media director Lizz Summers as Cincinnati's new vice president of communications at the beginning of May.
The biggest task arguably will be building the roster, and one can assume the scouting is already beginning with technical director Luke Sassano brought on board in March to oversee that process that coach Alan Koch began with his roster-building this offseason.
"We've been thinking of 2019 for some time," Koch said. "It's why we brought some of the players we currently have, and we're going to try to do some work (scouting) if we can in the summertime. It's not that easy when you are in one league moving to another, but we're exploring all sorts of different avenues to prepare this team as best we can for 2019. We are happy today. It's a great day, but we have a lot of work ahead of us.
"To get this team ready right for the start as we go into MLS, which is what we expect for ourselves, there is a lot of work that lies ahead. If we can do some work this summer, we will do it, but obviously we will focus on all the different expansion drafts and the draft to get ourselves ready."
FC Cincinnati already has a jump start with a quality USL roster to select some of its MLS squad from, including Nazmi Albadawi, who is on a rarely awarded multi-year contract. The team has been able to attract several of the top lower-division players in the U.S. on the anticipation of an MLS bid.
Expansion clubs have several options for building a roster, though, and building from within would be a small part of FCC's promotion. MLS allows up to 30 players on an active roster with the first 20 counting toward the team's salary budget (which in 2017 was $3,845,000) and referred to as the senior roster.
The expansion draft, which usually takes place shortly after the MLS Cup final in mid-December, allows newcomers to the league to select one player from any five MLS teams -- minus those players placed on a club's 11-player protected list. Then, there is the four-round MLS SuperDraft in January, which is similar to the NFL draft.
By entering the league in 2019, FCC will not have to compete with any other expansion clubs for draft positioning.
"It's never easy to grow a team, but the fact we are potentially, from what I've heard, the only team going in next year gives us a big advantage," Koch said. "It allows you then to use the expansion draft to the best of your abilities to get quality players we know can come play for us right away."
Free agency and the signing of up to three designated players -- usually big-name international players who are permitted to be paid above the salary cap -- help fill the rest of the squad. Teams that already have academies set up can use "homegrown players," signing them directly to the team, but that won't be possible for FCC yet.
Cincinnati had the beginnings of a youth academy as early as 2016 with a very informal youth training program implemented that summer and intentions of expanding it the following year; however, plans never got off the ground while ownership was focusing on more immediate concerns like the stadium.
Koch said that will be a priority moving forward.
"We've been gauging community groups and definitely have a plan to unfold that, but I'm not sure when," Koch said.
A training facility also is still in the works, as the club has been listening to proposals for locations around the Tri-State, and although Nippert Stadium has been declared suitable for the short-term, FCC will need to make a few modifications to get it MLS-ready.
The pitch was widened to FIFA standards last year and digital sponsorship boards are set up on the eastern sideline during home matches. However, more investments are on the way.
"They've got a stadium they're going to work with us on as part of their expansion bid -- renovations and other investments they'll make in the stadium to make it what we call MLS-ready," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "Some of that is technology related, some of that is lighting and some of it is other investments they need to make, but it was a significant financial investment they had to make to ensure that facility will be ready for MLS next season."
In many ways, the club has more work to do now in a shorter period of time than in the last 16 months since submitting its expansion application.
"They have a short runway to get a lot of things done," Garber said. "They've got to build out their organization, they've got to expand their employee base. They've got to think about how they are going to approach differently or not their technical side. Do they change their philosophy? All those things, Jeff is going to be busier now leading up to March of 2019 than he was even getting all this done."