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OPINION: Looking back on FCC’s first MLS season

By the time the final whistle chirped and FC Cincinnati players made their last walk toward their locker room, General Manager Gerard Nijkamp was already in Europe searching for the next Orange and Blue players.

Nijkamp’s not alone. Including his scouting department, FCC will scour the globe for players who will play a part in the club’s future.

But none of that mattered Sunday afternoon inside Audi Field. What mattered there was Cincinnati’s resilient 0-0 draw with to D.C. United, which was a conclusion fit to describe this tumultuous 2019 campaign and optimism for 2020 alike.

In 34 games, FCC earned 24 points. They scored 31 times, and allowed an MLS-record 75 goals. The club started the season with its second coach in four seasons and ended it with three head coaches in the final 25 matches.

Between Leo Bertone’s world-class wonderstrike in Seattle and playing with nine men against D.C., FC Cincinnati’s inaugural MLS season came and went with some glorious moments, but many nightmarish ones, too.

Yet, as Nijkamp’s current geographic coordinates suggest, that much doesn’t matter now. What matters is how the club responds to what it’s just endured. 

There’s never been an MLS team to concede so many goals. The players have also never been on a team that’s made so many coaching changes. For FC Cincinnati fans, they’ve never witnessed a season that didn’t include some sort of success. Until 2019.

The first two months of the year saw FCC play different formations and players constantly – yet the Orange and Blue were still a match away from the best five-game start for any first-year club in MLS history. But then in the fifth game, it poured – literally – and Cincinnati lost and plans started going down the metaphorical drain.

Head Coach Alan Koch was fired in early May. Yoann Damet, just a 29-year-old assistant, became the youngest head coach in MLS history. He was tasked with creating a new playing style, finding consistency and, above all, establishing a positive culture.

He did all three things, but the consistency meant the league newcomers produced loss after loss. There was 5-2 at New York City FC. There was 7-1 at Minnesota United FC.

When the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup rolled around, players left on international duty and Damet was left with a depleted roster and the task of keeping the club in the playoff hunt and in U.S. Open Cup contention.

Some games saw the team unable to even field a full 18. By late June, three MLS SuperDraft picks had been recalled from loans and needed to play. A fourth rookie sat on the bench.

This wasn’t how FC Cincinnati’s inaugural MLS season was supposed to go. After all, it felt like everything went Cincinnati’s way the first three seasons of the club’s existence.

In 2016, more than 14,000 fans went to the first game, and by July the team had the biggest attendance for a match in Ohio history when English Premier League side Crystal Palace FC visited for a mid-summer friendly.

In 2017, John Harkes was fired the night before a preseason trip to Florida, yet Koch took over and guided the team to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. It was the first time a lower-league side advanced that far since 2011, and during the run, the South African coach called FC Cincinnati “FC Disneyland.”

The storybook continued in 2018. By the time the players lifted the USL Supporters’ Shield in late September, they manufactured the then longest unbeaten run in USL history. The club that earned more points than any side previously was rightfully taking its place in MLS.

So, this was the backstory to what led to Cincinnati joining the first division. It got into MLS faster than any team in league history – with more captivating story lines than any preceding club – but once here, the Orange and Blue found themselves struggling.

And that’s why the scouting department is scouring the world for players who will wear the team colors next season. As for players who did so in 2019, all of them know if they will or won’t do the same in 2020 and beyond.

What’s also known is that the front office has full faith in Gerard Nijkamp to find players fit for Head Coach Ron Jans’ selection.

Jans, who has one more season in his contract, has stated he hasn’t had enough time to be evaluated yet. (There’s been enough time to see he’s improving the team, though.) Next season will be his time to do so.

Ambitions rest on being competitive and making the playoffs. In 2021, once West End Stadium transforms from a construction site into a soccer cathedral, FC Cincinnati want to be MLS Cup competitors.

Given how this current season transpired, that feels like long time away.

But if this club – through the good and bad – has achieved anything, it’s the ability to bend time and make unrealistic dreams become a literal reality.

Professional soccer in this city was a myth – until it wasn’t. Postseason dreams for one of the worst teams in MLS might seem fantasy – until it isn’t.

The reason the Orange and Blue had one of the league’s best average attendances in a dismal season was because of belief. Belief in the club, and belief that things get better.

After this season, things can only get better, obviously. 

But what if that better is better than anything that feels possible following the 0-0 draw at Audi Field?

That’s the mission for Nijkamp and Jans. That’s the ambition of FC Cincinnati.

It’s easy to sit here and write the only way forward is not looking back. But in looking back, it’s clear it simply cannot be this bad again – and won’t. 

Carl H. Linder III even promised the fans as much. 

This was the first Cincinnati season in MLS. If this campaign was about laying a foundation and one was laid. There’s a future waiting to be written.

As you, the Orange and Blue supporters have shown, you’re still eagerly awaiting to see what that future might be. 

The only certainty is it won’t look like 2019.

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