NEW YORK CITY — FC Cincinnati is entering Major League Soccer with a bit of a chip on its shoulder.
That’s how FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding characterized it, at least.
During the livestream of the club’s MLS Expansion Draft on Tuesday, he started off talking about how the club was looking for players with that kind of mentality. FC Cincinnati is out to prove doubters wrong, and the former second-tier United Soccer League club is finding more and more of them while preparing to make the jump to MLS this spring.
“When we created FC Cincinnati, I don't think too many people had any expectation we would be here in three years,” Berding said. “We're not the largest media market. We're in the heartland, and some people on the coast call us 'flyover country.' And you have to be in Cincinnati sometimes to know how special we are, what a special city it is.
“We talk about being the cultural embodiment of a rising Cincinnati, and we get to wear that proudly with FC Cincinnati. In that respect, we do have a chip on our shoulder a bit.”
FC Cincinnati certainly is taking a different route than some of the other expansion teams of recent years -- most notably Los Angeles FC and 2018 MLS Cup winner Atlanta United – who seem to have spared no expense in bringing in top players and are reaping the benefits with quick success on the field.
Berding and manager Alan Koch both watched among a crowd of 73,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday as Atlanta won its first Cup. Seeing a young club win a championship in just its second season is encouraging for future expansion teams like FC Cincinnati, but Cincinnati will have to go about obtaining one in its own unique way.
Cincinnati doesn’t have the resources to compare to Atlanta or LAFC and clearly is being intentional about spending and saving where it can. In bringing up nine players from its USL roster -- plus MLS players Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe, who were acquired in July and played on loan the rest of 2018 – FCC has drawn criticism from fans and national media questioning how successful a team can be with so much lower-division talent. No other expansion club making the jump from a lower division has brought as many players up with it.
However, that was one easy way for FCC to save money, as most players are reportedly making close to the minimum salary requirements, and the promoted players are ones that each serve a purpose greater than filling a spot on a roster.
“Every player plays his part, so we are giving those guys from USL the opportunity,” Koch said. “I feel confident several of them will step up. I don't know exactly who, but some of them will end up just being squad players. You want a squad player to be someone you know, you know their mentality, you know their attitude, you know what they can give to us, you know what they can give the city. As far as I'm concerned, it's a no-brainer to sign players like that who fit the culture of how we are going to work, that have set themselves up for success, but they will also help set up the other key additions we bring in for success.”
FCC showed Tuesday evening it is willing to spend big by trading for Vancouver captain and MLS Best XI defender Kendall Waston.
Cincinnati shelled out $825,000 in allocation money – a record transaction for a defender – and gave up an international spot it had acquired in trading expansion draft pick Kei Kemara to the Colorado Rapids. Waston made just over $600,000 this year, according to the MLS Players’ Union.
Prior to the announcement of that trade, which came just over four hours after the start of the draft, the club received criticism for giving up the Whitecaps’ highest-paid player – compensated at $1 million in 2018 – for a mere international spot. However, Berding was confident in an interview shortly after the draft that FCC would be validated for the move once other pieces came together.
“We feel comfortable,” Berding said. “We have a budget. We have a financial structure. We have a structure in terms of how we want to build our roster and how we want to invest resources in order to have the best chance to have a successful team. We are following through that. All the picks we made (in the expansion draft) and all the deals that are in the works remain consistent with our structure and our budget.”
The moves continued Wednesday with the acquisition of FC Dallas midfielder Victor Ulloa in exchange for $150,000 in allocation money and the reported signing of Polish goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton, who has been without a club since his contract with Deportivo La Coruna expired in the summer.
Berding said a couple more moves were expected to come this week, and with those additions, the roster now climbs to 19. The club would like to get the bulk of the roster completed in the next two weeks.
“We want to have our group in place as quickly as possible,” Koch said. “We would like before Christmas to have the bulk of our team in place. We've still got some time, but as we've seen particularly in the last 48 hours, every single second matters. We've been working nonstop the last 48 hours. We feel we made significant strides, and a few other things are very close to getting finished, so it's an exciting time right now.”