CINCINNATI -- With the United Soccer League regular-season title already locked up and celebrated, FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch now has the difficult task of balancing a desire to get guys more minutes and making sure players are match fit for the playoffs.
FC Cincinnati (23-3-6) has two games left to fine-tune for the postseason, starting with Saturday's match at third-place Pittsburgh (15-4-12). The regular-season finale is Oct. 13 at ninth-place Nashville SC, and the playoffs – for which FCC has secured home-field advantage throughout – begin Oct. 20.
Koch made 10 changes to the lineup Saturday against Indy Eleven compared to the previous game when the Orange and Blue beat Richmond on the road last Wednesday, but the starting XI both times included players who would be considered regular starters.
These next two games likely will feature the team's best 11 with a few minor changes.
"We're just going to continue to push the group, reward the guys that are showing what they can do in training because obviously the guys that go in the playoffs need to be 90-minute match fit and the best way to be match fit for the postseason is to play 90 minutes right now," Koch said. "We'll try to give as many guys as possible opportunity but we won't be giving everybody opportunity in these last two games. These last two games are priceless exercises that we need to get better and prepare ourselves for the postseason."
After clinching the regular-season title, Koch said he wanted to "reward everybody through the final few games" because "there are a lot of players that have sacrificed a lot [and have] worked incredibly hard" to help the group.
Fortunately for him, what looks like a rotation of players on the outside still resembles a usual starting lineup, thanks to the team's incredible depth. A handful of players that normally come off the bench have also stepped in as starters seamlessly.
The final two matches will serve as an opportunity for some of those guys to show they deserve a spot in the starting 11 in the playoffs.
"These next two games, there's no pressure on us," said center back Paddy Barrett, who has started all 14 games he has played and ranks 12th on the team in minutes played. "We don't necessarily need to win the games, but obviously we want to go win the games, and that's our ambition is to go out and play these games like they are the playoff.
"All of us are fighting for a position for that team that plays in the playoff, so for me and every player we have these next two games are big for us because we want to show the coaching staff we're ready when the playoffs come about. These two games are big for our opponents, too, because they are fighting for position, so they are going to be two big occasions and it's something we want to drive on and try to go get two wins and for me, personally, try to get in the 11 and go win the playoffs."
Defender Pa Konate, who joined the team July 30 on loan from Italian Serie A's S.P.A.L., feels like he is just getting warmed up and still has a lot to prove. The club has an option to purchase his contract for Major League Soccer next year, and he believes he still hasn't shown his full potential.
When he arrived, he was just in the preseason in Italy.
"I want to get into a groove," said Konate, who became playoff eligible with his fifth appearance Saturday in his third start. "When I came in, they were full into their season and I was just beginning my preseason so it was important for me to get into some games. We have some big games coming up, and I expect to be in my best condition to help this team as soon as possible. I need to come to that point I know I can play. I still have a lot to give to this team."
Koch said he is still assessing players for roster decisions next year and he will continue to do so until the end of the playoffs.
FC Cincinnati doesn't plan to sign anyone from the current squad until after the season.
"In this business, we're all assessed every single day, and that's what makes this business so difficult, so stressful, but it also makes it so beautiful," Koch said. "… We'll continue to assess ourselves through the last few games and in the postseason. But, we'll also internally continue to push this group, because we know we've got an amazing group. Obviously, I built this group with Jeff (Berding) and the entire club and I'll continue to push this group, because we've still got things that we want to achieve together."
Cincinnati won't change its approach to the last two games in an effort to save anything for the playoffs. Sometimes in sports, teams try to hide certain strengths or tactics late in the season against opponents they could potentially face later in the playoffs, but Koch said that is not a concern.
Pittsburgh is one of the four teams in the Eastern Conference that have already clinched a playoff spot, and Nashville is in a close battle for one of the last four berths.
"We are just focusing on this game," Koch said. "We don't know who we are going to play in the postseason. We may or may not play Pittsburgh down the road, but we're not worried about that right now. We're just worried about Saturday. We want to prepare ourselves the best possible way for this cup competition and that's by playing well and continuing to get positive results."
FC Cincinnati is still riding its incredible 21-game unbeaten streak with 10 straight wins, but Koch said it's more important to carry confidence into the playoffs than momentum.
Ideally, the Orange and Blue have both, though.
"You can take confidence out of a game from many different things -- that could be the performance or the result and hopefully you get both of those two," Koch said. "That's our goal. We want to get three points on Saturday but we're also going to be trying a lot of different things too."