CINCINNATI — Players have been trickling into FC Cincinnati’s offices the past week or so, and the fast-approaching inaugural Major League Soccer season “feels very real now,” according to head coach Alan Koch.
FC Cincinnati is scheduled to take the pitch for its first official preseason training session Tuesday, following team orientation Sunday night and physicals Monday. After three years in the second division United Soccer League, Cincinnati joins MLS as the league’s 24th team this season.
“Seeing returning players and obviously new players coming to town, you can feel their energy and we feed off that,” Koch said in a phone interview Thursday. “We’re excited to get started.”
The expansion team has little time to waste as its first preseason game as an MLS club is set for Jan. 30 when FCC plays Eastern Conference foe Montreal Impact at IMG Academy in Florida.
Eleven players -- on what ultimately will be a roster of 30 -- return from last season’s USL regular-season championship squad, including Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe, who signed from MLS sides in late July. Everyone else is new to Cincinnati, coming from other MLS clubs, different countries or college programs.
Integrating them quickly and developing chemistry on the pitch will be important.
“It’s a big challenge to be honest, and we don’t have much time,” Koch said. “In MLS, we’re regulated to when we can start to put this group together. Last year in USL, there was no mandated start, so we started two weeks earlier and that gave us time to jell. We have to maximize every moment we’re together, and we have a distinct plan for that, and we will execute that plan. We’re going into the season as underdogs and looking forward to embracing that role. It’s something we think we can use to our favor.”
Koch and the others involved in FCC’s roster building process had all that in mind when making decisions on who to bring back from last year and how many spots the club could afford to fill with lower division talent already familiar with the staff and city.
Pundits have questioned the decision to bring nine USL players up, in addition to Adi and Alashe, but Koch said each of those players bring value to the team and will help the newcomers transition.
“We knew it was going to be important to have players who know the culture of our club and are familiar with the city, and that’s why we did it,” Koch said. “With some of the guys that had optional sessions the last few days, you can see the integration of the group. The returning players are very comfortable with the club and the new guys are excited to be here.”
One aspect that will be different for everyone is the opening of the new Mercy Health Training Center in Milford, where FCC hopes to begin training Tuesday. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the team will utilize “The Bubble” indoor practice facility at the University of Cincinnati.
Koch recently went out to the MHTC with members of the operations staff to check out the progress as construction continues at the site and said it “looks awesome.” Training fields are ready for use but the facility won’t be complete until summer.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” Koch said. “It’s part of being a pro soccer team. Obviously, our relationship with UC is fantastic, but having our own home as a club and doing all the work we want, where we don’t have to worry about scheduling, it’s better for everyone. It will set everybody up for success.”
The first week of training is most important for getting to know one another and allowing the players time to settle in before heading off to Florida for two weeks. FCC will play three matches there before wrapping up the preseason with exhibitions against two of its former USL rivals (Charleston Battery and Indy Eleven) and two regional MLS rivals in Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew.
The season begins March 2 at Seattle.
As for training sessions, Koch doesn’t expect his methods to change much from the way he ran USL practices the past two years.
“The philosophy of how we work, it clearly works, so we won’t be changing that,” Koch said. “The quality will be raised. We expect to be playing at a higher level. With bigger, better players, we have high expectations for our players. We’re excited to lay the framework out in terms of our training plan, and we expect to get more out of training.”