Reflecting on 2018: FC Cincinnati

So much more than yesterday…

June 2nd of 2018, FC Cincinnati defeated New York Red Bulls II by a score line of 1-2. This victory would ignite the start to an undefeated streak spanning five months and 24 games – the longest of all-time in the United Soccer League. That same score line would be etched into history when the teams met again in July. But it wouldn’t be until the Conference Semifinals of the Playoffs when New York and Cincinnati would collide once more; and this time, the score would be different.

Unprecedented in quality, FC Cincinnati’s dominant 2018 regular season campaign netted them several records, earned them the Regular Season Title, and laid down a seemingly unsurpassable gauntlet. Their juggernaut is something to be looked upon in awe by all clubs joining the USL Championship League in 2019 and in years beyond. But that wasn’t enough for Cincinnati, they wanted the USL Cup.

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Photo by Ryan Meyer via Orange & Blue Press

Their campaign truly began the week after their 3-0 beating at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 2017 playoffs. Cincinnati dramatically squeaked in at the final moments only to be shown the door immediately. A playoff win was still out of sight. But with their backs against the wall, the FCC front office and Head Coach Alan Koch planted their feet firmly in the ground and got to work.

Nearly a year ago exactly, FC Cincinnati announced nine players to return. Of those nine, three came from the inaugural season, and from the first to the last whistle of FC Cincinnati’s USL campaign, each gave their heart and soul. So, on behalf of all of Cincinnati, to Corben Bone, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Kenney Walker, we thank you.

Setting a standard

Though they had their foundation in place, it takes more than nine to make a roster. Thus, Coach Koch set off, sojourning the planet to recruit from every nook and cranny that soccer players called home. As the months went by, he fastidiously signed individuals of quality, both in terms of talent and character, to fulfill his gameday 18 obligations. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, excitement began to brew in Cincinnati.

We want the Cup! That was the main idea of General Manager Jeff Berding’s words. Each and every public outing he made his ambitions abundantly clear. But it’s unfair to say he was working towards this dream alone. No, he was merely the towns spokesman – the soothsayer revealing the internal desires, festering hot from years of sports disappointment, by all Cincinnati supporters. So yes, every single one of us, we wanted that damn Cup.

USL Cup

Then our hearts lifted. Back from his trip, Coach Koch was accompanied by an entourage scouted for the sole purpose of hoisting silverware on behalf of the Queen City. The amalgamation of culture, talent, and experience was unprecedented in the lower division of United States soccer. And the city quickly realized the words of impending victory from everyone in the front office were not empty promises. Their clear and precise actions highlighted a mantra, our mantra, that we were winners. That we wanted to win. That we were going to win.

A star is born

Emmanuel Ledesma was born in Quilmes, Argentina. He’s a globetrotter who has lived his dream playing the game of soccer. Looking at his Wikipedia page, it feels like he’s played for more teams than most guys have played games. When his signing was first announced, many of us did what we normally do: liked the Twitter or Facebook post and went on about our day. Another big signing for another big club. No big deal.

When I was first researching players, he didn’t stand out at all either. Yes, he earned a spot in the NASL best XI the previous year, but so did Nazmi Albadawi and Richie Ryan. He was a journeyman obviously making a pit stop in the Queen City and then he’d move on to whatever else fancied him. That was my conclusion. And I’m happy to say I was wrong.

Emmanuel Ledesma is the best soccer player to ever wear the Orange and Blue. Period. The 2018 odds on USL MVP was prolific on offense. He tied the FCC single season goal record with 16 goals, and then went on to set the USL assist record with 16 assists. He was lethal outside of the box. He was a consistent winner of USL awards. And he was the focal point in a network of passing that made the rest of the team look unstoppable. And that’s not even the best part.

Emmanuel Ledesma, to me, is a hero. I don’t say this lightly. And I don’t mean like Superman. When I say hero, I mean he’s someone you look up to. Whether on or off the field, he’s inspirational. From minute one to the final whistle, he’s sprinting to every ball and invigorating the offense. His left foot is one of the most valuable appendages in Cincinnati. But his passion is what captured the attention of the Queen City.

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Photo by Ryan Meyer via Orange & Blue Press

Mention him by name on Twitter and you can be sure he’ll retweet your post. After every game he thanks those in the stands and will sign everything you present to him. He’s smiling because he loves to be there. He’s screaming at the ref because he knows for a fact he was fouled. He loves to play soccer not to win, but just because he loves it. And witnessing this man make his dreams come true is simply magical. You can’t help but smile at his success.

I dedicated a lot of my time here to Ledesma, but so many other players shared their stories with us as well. Dekel Keinan travel across the planet to captain a young group of guys, leading as both a player and mentor, before bestowing the reigns unto Paddy Barrett. Evan Newton and Spencer Richey fought one another for playing time and gave us one of the best combined goalkeeping performances ever. Forrest Lasso grew before our eyes, sacrificing his body each and every week making the USL elite look small. Nazmi Albadawi, Blake Smith, Michael Lahoud, and Richie Ryan showed off skills that we thought we’d have to wait until MLS to see. And we all welcomed Tyler Gibson into the family after he suffered a gruesome injury early on only to blow our minds and come back stronger than ever. All-in-all, they’re part of the family now.

Major League Victory

Then there was this. Surely, I don’t need to recapitulate to you now. You were a part of the marathon. After arguing, fighting, protesting, demanding, and negotiations, hopes died. Then suddenly, it all worked out. Recent renderings revealed FC Cincinnati’s future home in the West End. And beginning in the 2019 season, they’ll be welcomed as the 26th club in Major League Soccer. We did this Cincinnati. Be proud.

I’m also very happy to report that the Columbus Crew has been saved. Remember last year when more than 30,000 people showed up to watch two teams from Ohio that were either the worst attended team in the major leagues or created within the last two years play a soccer game for a tournament no one ever really heard of before? I do. If that is anything worth considering, then we’ve got a bright future ahead of us. #HellisReal

A Cincinnati Playoff

I digress. To begin the finale of their time in the USL, FC Cincinnati played their third playoff game in three years. They entered the postseason as the number one seed set to face off against fellow MLS entrant, Nashville SC. Though the gap between these two teams in standings told one story, the results on the field retorted differently. And for Alan Koch’s second straight playoff game, FC Cincinnati failed to score in the opening 90 minutes. Unlike Tampa Bay in 2017, however, FCC at least managed to fend off a difficult Nashville squad as well.

90 minutes turned into 120 minutes, and we shifted in our seats when those same three originals I mentioned before – Jimmy McLaughlin, Kenney Walker, and Corben Bone – combined to score in extra time. Then Cincinnati reminded us of the city we’re in and how much that city hates sports, and Nashville tied it up shortly after. Nervously smothering their final efforts that made many natives hold their hearts, we were off to PKs.

I don’t think we were the better team that night. Nashville bested us in nearly every category and their one fault was that their sixth PK taker couldn’t keep it on target. I hardly consider FC Cincinnati to be the winner, for it was more on Nashville’s losing efforts that Cincinnati earned the results it desired. But a playoff win is a playoff win no matter how lackluster. And I’m proud to say FC Cincinnati will leave the USL without a curse.

Gut check

Then something peculiar happened. They lost. They lost bad. They lost to a team they probably hate losing to. They lost in the most heartbreaking, frustrating way. And suddenly, we as supporters realized FC Cincinnati was mortal. There was so much hype around the team. The excitement of 18,000+ season ticket holders ready for soccer cracked the traditional roots of baseball and football in the city and began to grow its own. Change was in the air and they were unstoppable. But just as Louisville, Minnesota, and Charlotte had done earlier in the season, New York humbled us. And it sucked.

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Photo by Ryan Meyer via Orange & Blue Press

Immediately after, it was so easy to complain. Our expectations were so high that we became high on accomplishment and anything but record breaking attendance, scoring, winning, championships, etc. was the end of the world. Failure of any kind was like a relapse. We suddenly became wild animals ready to gut whomever caused this atrocity. Because FC Cincinnati had no precedent set before them, we didn’t know the struggle of losing at soccer. And when they finally found their rhythm, it was in the form of a record breaking standard. Thus, anything but record breaking was seen as a failure. And that’s a problem.

I’m reminded of the 2017 US Open Cup. Reflecting, it was unbelievable because we had no expectations. The experience of community and pushing ourselves to be in the company of those who thought little of us was all we yearned for. Winning actually meant nothing. It could’ve ended against Columbus and we would’ve all been okay with that. And that’s why the run was so incredible; we were just happy to be there. Making it to the Final Four was the cherry on top. It was euphoria on the level of seeing color for the first time. Such a small town consistently overlooked was now the prodigal child you couldn’t help but admire.

But this year our fondness for soccer seemed to dissipate. Perhaps it was the roaring fire we lit under ourselves in order to rise to the next level. Though we were all quite proud of how brightly it burned, we also became blinded by it. Our expectations shot through the roof and the many accolades we collected this season just didn’t seem as shiny. Winning every game became an expectation. Losing was unacceptable. Being human was unacceptable. We want the Cup!

And that’s a shame, because there was so much to be proud of.

I was specifically moved by Ledesma after the playoff loss against New York. He wept on the field because he thought he failed. The USL MVP of 2018, Regular Season Champion, and MLS contract extended Emmanuel Ledesma had to be helped off the field because he was so heartbroken at the thought he failed us. I feel ridiculous looking bad and being mad that we didn’t win.

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Photo by Joe Schmuck via Orange & Blue Press

What’s the expectation looking forward? Shall we go to war with the front office if there is anything but a zero in our loss column next season? Should we blame Coach Koch for minute changes that were likely negligible in the grand scheme of things? No, of course not. What we need to change looking forward is our attitude.

FC Cincinnati has never been about winning. Yes, that is the goal – pun intended. However, I’ll bet many of you reading this bought tickets to a game because you either fell in love with the experience or you were investigating what everyone else in the city can’t stop talking about. Sports have always been this way. They’re a catalyst to bring people of any and all backgrounds together.

Winning is icing on the cake. All season long that’s all we could think about: win this, win that. But at the end of the day, the joy of soccer is supporters, coaches, players, owners, operators, etc. coming together as one to represent the place we call home as best we can. So as humans do, when we inevitably fail once more, remember that the “Winner” in us is our ability to get up after being knocked down and be better than we were before.

Though expectations morphed the season’s final results into something unfulfilling for many, with a small change of attitude, I can’t help but feel abundantly proud of the efforts, passion, and creativity every branch of the FC Cincinnati family tree set forth this season.

Yes, I’m disappointed we’re leaving the USL. I’m heartbroken our original crest will be retired without a star above it. This ending was just more frustrating than anything. But this was just a single chapter to an enormous book. History is still out there. So, let’s be proud of what we accomplished. Let’s hold our heads high. Let’s stay humble moving forward. Let’s remember we’re human. And most importantly, let’s kick Major League ass next season. And once again, to all members of the FC Cincinnati family – supporters, players, coaches, staff, and quiet observers included – thank you for the incredible year.

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Photo by Joe Schmuck via Orange & Blue Press

 

 

Special thanks to all contributors at Orange & Blue Press for their work this season that helped me bring this reflection to life.

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