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Returning FC Cincinnati players admit to some 'butterflies' playing in MLS, but they're ready

'We want to show we belong'
PHOTOS: FC Cincinnati 2, Pittsburgh Riverhounds FC 1
Posted at 11:26 AM, Jan 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-30 11:30:06-05

CINCINNATI — The players FC Cincinnati brought to its inaugural Major League Soccer roster from last year’s United Soccer League squad have something to prove.

No other MLS expansion team has brought up as many lower-division players as FC Cincinnati has, with nine making the jump this season, but midfielder Nazmi Albadawi said those who stayed to make the transition with the club aren’t there just to fill out the roster.

FC Cincinnati gets its first test in MLS on Wednesday with a preseason friendly against Montreal Impact at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where the team is spending almost two weeks.

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“We want to show we belong, not only me but all the other guys from USL as well,” said Albadawi, who is on an MLS roster for the first time in his career after five seasons with second-division teams. “Everyone here wants to prove they deserve to play and we belong and we didn't just get brought up for an extra number. We want to show we can compete at this level, and hopefully we do well.”

This is the first MLS experience for four of the players brought up from last year’s roster, though defender Justin Hoyte and midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma have played at high levels in England and elsewhere. Forrest Lasso joins Albadawi as first-time top-division players, and those who have been with MLS clubs are starting anew after seeing limited playing time at this level in the past.

Midfielder Corben Bone saw action in 20 games with Chicago Fire FC from 2010 to 2014, including eight starts, and defender Blake Smith has 19 games of MLS experience from a stint with Montreal Impact between 2013 and 2015. But everyone else was limited to mere minutes.

Forward Emery Welshman got five minutes of playing time with Toronto FC in 2013, midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin logged 19 minutes in four years with the Philadelphia Union, and goalkeeper Spencer Richey played one game – all 90 minutes – with the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2017.

The lack of experience doesn’t change anything for those adjusting to the higher level of play.

“I'm thinking the same way, working hard every single day like last year and in past years, so I think that's the key,” Ledesma said. “You just keep working hard, stay focused. I want to do the same thing with MLS. I know it's a higher level, but I like it because it's good competition for me and personal competition for me. I want to work really hard to be part of this team.”

It was obvious from the first day of training last week that the level of play is vastly different in MLS. The speed of play was much quicker and crisper, and players were more technically sound, bigger and faster.

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None of that was surprising, though.

“I'm not the biggest one on the team anymore, so that's fun," Lasso said. "We're all cut similarly. There are a lot of big guys, the keepers especially, but it's the same thing I expected. I've been aspiring to get to this level a couple years now, so I knew it was coming. It wasn't too shocking or surprising.

“It's exciting,” Lasso added. “It's the same thing we've done every day. You're playing soccer and you're trying to compete at the best of your ability. Obviously, it's many levels above what it was last year. No disrespect to anyone, but the level of professionalism has definitely been increased, so it's good. You have to be sharper, you have to be cleaner, you have to be a lot more focused, but that brings the best out of you.”

FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said he has been impressed with the returning players so far. They all earned their opportunity during a USL regular-season championship run last year, and now they are getting a chance to compete for positions but also playing an important role in helping the newcomers to Cincinnati adjust.

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“They've done exactly what we thought they would off the field,” Koch said. “They've been very accommodating in bringing guys in and welcoming them to our club, and you can see the culture of our club hasn't skipped a beat. You can see the same sort of feel-good feeling we had in training last year is here already in the first few days and a big part of that is the returning players opening their arms and opening the locker room to the new guys. They haven't skipped a beat.”

Forward Fanendo Adi, who was brought in from Portland Timbers as the club’s first designated player last year, said he gave a little pep talk to the draft picks last week reminding them they do not need to be perfect because they will learn from mistakes.

That same message applies to any new player making the jump to MLS, but Albadawi said he doesn’t worry about perfection.

“I think on the contrary because we were with Alan and the staff last year, and we know they know us and that we can play,” he said. “It would have been different if we were joining a new team for the first time and the whole team was already there, but this is a group where everyone is brand new and everyone is trying to prove a point. Mistakes are going to happen -- that's part of the game -- and hopefully we can come together and all win.”

Lasso said he’s “living the dream,” so the first week of training felt like Christmas morning.

He and Albadawi have had experience playing with former MLS players in the past and against first-division clubs in preseason tournaments and the U.S. Open Cup, so both said it felt “normal” being on the pitch with an MLS team. Neither was nervous, but the butterflies could still come.

“I think it will hit me more once we get closer to the season and getting ready for MLS play, but this is my sixth preseason now, so I've been through it plenty of times,” Albadawi said. “I think once we're in the league and getting going, I think it will really hit us with a little bit of butterflies, that, 'OK, it's a step up,' but we’ve worked hard for the opportunity, and now it’s time to make the most of the opportunity.”