It gets lost in the maw of excitement that FC Cincinnati is the third-fastest expansion club to win a Supporters’ Shield title in Major League Soccer history. It’s an accolade that doesn’t come with an extra bonus, or a star over the crest, but it’s something to be proud of for those who helped shape its history.
The achievement has been overlooked partly because three last-place finishes clung to the club like a shadow. A record-short lead into MLS from USL, where FCC had just 278 days from announcement to kickoff, put the club behind the eightball in a way that took time, evidently, to climb out of.
But during those first three years in MLS, while the team on the field struggled to find its footing, the rest of the organization continued to grow. TQL Stadium was built, the Mercy Health Training Center in Milford was planned, constructed and now fully operational, and a third office in downtown Cincinnati opened and is staffed for success. When a leadership change on the soccer side was made in 2021, the organization was primed for success and needed that final (albeit fundamental) change to get everything clicking.
But the lessons learned in that rough span have been vital to the change in direction FCC has taken, resulting in a Supporters’ Shield title.
“When we started FC Cincinnati, we were coming off of my 19-year career with the Bengals and I got very excited with our success. It was so rewarding that how we set out to build the club was coming to fruition,” Co-CEO Jeff Berding said. “I got high with the highs and there weren’t that many lows. Then, we made the quickest move ever. It’ll never be replicated, because of what we proved, as you need time to prepare for the transition to Major League Soccer. We didn’t have it and we experienced the lows of the lows.
“When you go through that level of adversity, it can either break you or sharpen you. The way that it sharpened me was not only to change many respects of how I want to lead our club, but also to have a stronger emotional bearing.”
Berding describes that the lesson learned is to keep even-keeled, never running too hot or cold. The Supporters’ Shield celebration saw him standing at the back, watching others celebrate and appreciating the moment in that way. On the flip side of the coin, Berding describes his role in the aftermath of losing the 2023 U.S. Open Cup semifinal in penalty kicks as trying to serve as a supportive and uplifting presence. The two moments represent the polar opposites of the emotional spectrum that faced FCC this season. A moment that Berding described as “devastating because we had it,” and the peak of success that the sport has.
“My point being, I try to have an emotional center,” Berding simplifies.
Chris Albright, named the club’s general manager in late 2021, has taken a similar approach. Brought in to be that essential piece of the proverbial puzzle, to point the soccer side in the right direction, the success seen by the organization is not new to the success Albright has enjoyed in his career but is unique.
“You get true ownership of it. You get to be a part of making some difficult decisions. Having your finger on the button, so to speak, you have to get those decisions right, or else you don’t have that success. In that sense, it’s been fun to have that level of ownership. Obviously, there’s a lot of people in and around me to support what we do a ton that we wouldn’t have the success without, but in the end, the sort of buck stops with you and there are real consequences to that. And so I guess it’s different in that way.
“I throw things less these days watching the games,” Albright said, unwilling to admit he throws nothing. “So there’s some growth there.”
Ceding control, or the illusion of it, has been a lesson learned for Albright this season. Understanding what he does and doesn’t have control over daily allows for clarity of mind and mission.
“About six weeks to two months ago, I came to the realization that I can only want it so bad as an executive. In the end, it doesn’t matter how bad I want it from the bleachers,” Albright admits.
By building a staff and creating a roster that does “want it” as badly as he does, a winning team with a winning culture emerges.
“It really matters how bad the players want it,” Albright said. “We have a group that really wants it, really understands what there is to win and what there is to lose. And I think in that, I was able to kind of go ‘alright, relax a little bit,’ because you don’t really have much control.
“The people that are in control, the coaches and the players, really want it and really know what they’re doing.”
The accolade and the finality of winning a trophy emphasize the work being done for FC Cincinnati. Forever, a trophy will be attached to the 2023 season as a point to definitive success and a proof of concept of what FC Cincinnati under this leadership can be.
“It’s validation of what you believe in and how you want to lead,” Albright said. “How you hire good people and empower them to do what they’re good at and support them. It validates that there’s some truth behind that philosophy.”
But as anyone in the organization would tell you, from Berding to Albright, head coach Pat Noonan to captain Luciano Acosta, the job isn’t done yet.
“Our work is not done, and I’m not just talking about the work of the MLS Cup,” Berding clarifies. “How do we ensure we’re building a sustainable winner for two years, four years down the road?
“How do we make sure we have enough revenue coming into the organization to support what is a growing league? Community impact is a big part of how we manage and lead FC Cincinnati. What are we doing in that space? From a long term perspective, our work is not done.”
“We try to evolve,” Albright said of what is next after this season. “That’s important in our league.”