Broo View: Now that FC Cincinnati has a seat at the MLS table, the real work begins

Posted at 5:23 PM, May 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-29 20:32:34-04

Major League Soccer is coming. Great. Now what?

The goal from the start for Carl Lindner III and his investment group was to land a franchise in MLS. Before that August day in 2015 when FC Cincinnati was born, Lindner III and his chief operative, Jeff Berding, were plotting a path toward today.

What Lindner III and his investors didn't realize is how quickly it would arrive. There were no baby steps -- it was leaps, bounds and record crowds.

The suits in the MLS offices took notice and viewed the team's first season with interest tempered by the fear that the box office boom might have come from the novelty of it all. The 2017 season proved it was no fluke. Cincinnati was a soccer hotbed.

Now that FCC has been offered a seat at the table in North America's premiere soccer league, it now has to piece together an MLS team in a hurry. That will be no small trick.

"You need a lot," America Soccer Now editor Noah Davis told me. "You need a pretty thorough roster turnover. I think the question now for FCC is, what kind of players do you want and how much money do you want to spend?"

Clearly the team that FC Cincinnati has pieced together for its final run in the USL is competitive at that level, but most of the players you've been watching on the field this season won't be back for FCC's inaugural run in MLS.

The two most recent expansion teams in MLS came into the league using different strategies to assemble their first-season teams.

"I think there's two schools of thought," Davis said. "Minnesota United had good players but no big international stars. They kind of said, 'Let's get in the league and try to be competitive.' Then you see what Atlanta United did: They brought in a superstar coach and some superstar international talent."

Currently, Atlanta United is tied for the lead in the MLS Eastern Conference. They're led by former Venezuela and Italy star Josef Martinez, who netted 19 goals in AU's first season in just 17 games.

Already, Martinez has eight goals this season. South American star Miguel Almiron was a finalist last season for MLS most valuable player. Gerado Martino, a former Argentina star player, was imported to be the team's head coach. Atlanta United finished fourth in its conference after losing in the first round of MLS playoffs.

Minnesota United FC chose to go grassroots with its roster, which it furnished with young stars. It missed the playoffs and finished with just 10 wins. This season, its second in MLS, Minnesota is struggling again, bubbling below the playoff cutoff line at the moment.

Davis told me to look to the north for which path FCC travels.

"If I would guess, I would say they'd be a little closer to Minnesota United, seeing how quickly things are coming together," he said.

FCC will benefit from an expansion draft, for which MLS will charge each of existing teams with protecting 11 of its players and exposing 12. Last year, for example, expansion team Los Angeles FC stocked its roster through the MLS expansion draft.

It was allowed to pick five players left unprotected by the existing MLS teams but no more than one player from any team. FC Cincinnati's technical staff, led by head coach Alan Koch, will have to get busy scouting prospective expansion draft players after the current USL season is over. They may only have two months to do it.

The question, of course, is whether or not FCC can be competitive in its initial MLS season, particularly if it chooses to go the route that Minnesota has taken.

Davis thinks it's possible, and it may be some current roster holdovers who would help that.

"You have a couple of guys who could start in MLS," he said. "They don't have to come in and be the best team in the league. I think it's very reasonable for an expansion team to compete for the playoffs in their first year. One year in the MLS, I don't think anyone is going to expect the MLS Cup to come to Cincinnati."

Of the current FCC players, midfielders Nazmi Albadawi and Emmanuel Ledesma, as well as defenders Forrest Lasso and Dekel Keinan, seem likely to make FC Cincinnati's first MLS roster. There could be others. I wouldn't look for the team to sign a big international star who would come with a big price tag.

As for Koch, Davis said he thinks he'll stay on as coach. There are only so many things you can change in a handful of months.

"I think that he's a better bet than not to stay on. You want to have a sort of continuity," he said. "It's a big transition, you want to limit the pressure points, so you'd probably want to retain the coach."

Although today's announcement is a celebration (the drama was extracted a few weeks ago when political and community leaders signed off on the stadium deal that made the MLS coming to Cincinnati fait accompli), the real work now begins. It'll be fun to watch.

Any business built from the ground up has bumps in the road, and FC Cincinnati will have its own share. The last time Cincinnati was accepted into a major professional sports league was more than 50 years ago, when the late Paul Brown and his investors landed a franchise in the American Football League, later part of the merger with the NFL. Because the chances of our town landing an NBA or NHL franchise are remote, we won't see something like this again in our lifetimes.

Sports has become the front door for any city. A city can have great restaurants, great theater, arts, neighborhoods and schools, but unless it has an entree that will tempt the world to take a closer look, they remain parochial.

Like the Reds and Bengals before it, FC Cincinnati will now bring international attention to our town. Highlights will be shown on television outlets around the world. The team will carry our city's name. FCC will become another great calling card.

This is big. And bigger days than this one -- a lot of them -- lie ahead.