As he walked down the aisle toward his seat on the bus, Jimmy McLaughlin shook hands with everyone he passed and kept a wide smile.
“It feels good to travel again,” he said.
Consider this Jimmy McLaughlin’s second tryout at FC Cincinnati.
His first stretched across the three USL seasons and saw McLaughlin become an FCC fan favorite while making 104 competitive appearances. Those appearances led to an MLS contract, but a torn ACL in early January prevented him from playing last season.
Now, McLaughlin is out of contract, but fighting to rejoin the club and reclaim the spot he once deserved but never fulfilled.
If his first tryout was three seasons, his next one is six weeks.
“Obviously, last season was brutal,” McLaughlin said. “I had worked for three years I was here to get the opportunity in MLS and I thought that was going to be my chance. That was derailed with a terrible injury. The reality is I get another opportunity here. I’m excited for it and I’m going to do whatever I can to take it.”
While the Orange and Blue went through their inaugural MLS campaign, McLaughlin watched from the sideline. Instead of practices and games, his “game situations” during the season were in rehabilitation with strength and conditioning coach Austin Berry and team physical therapist Jason Stallons. He only fully got into full team training sessions once the team moved into the three weeks of offseason workouts.
McLaughlin called his recovery brutal, more so mentally than physically.
“The mental side, that was the hardest part,” he said. “Just the day to day, not being part of the group with the guys, not being in the sessions and just the amount of time being alone.”
McLaughlin might’ve been a player at the club, but he was never really with the team.
That can change in 2020, of course.
Before the offseason, he met with GM Gerard Nijkamp and coach Ron Jans and they discussed his potential future with the club. There were no promises past preseason, but that was enough for the 26-year-old.
“I’ve never gone into a preseason without a contract, but the reality is I can’t do anything to change that,” he said. “All I can do is focus on myself and play up to my ability to earn a spot on the team. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
McLaughlin’s last appearance was Oct. 27, 2018, when he played the final 11 minutes of FCC’s final USL match: a 2-1 Eastern Conference quarterfinals loss to New York Red Bulls II at Nippert Stadium.
In his last full campaign, he made 30 regular-season appearances, but only 11 starts. In essence, he was a super sub used to jolt the Orange and Blue in the final minutes of each match. It was a role where he excelled.
Can that happen again in 2020?
McLaughlin said he had offers to play elsewhere, but declined. The winger’s professional career has risen largely because of FC Cincinnati, and he wants that to continue.
He’s made it clear he’s not fighting for minimal contributions at FC Cincinnati.
“I don’t want to just make the team and not be part of it,” he said. “I want to make the team and have an influence on it.
“Step one is making the team and that’s all my focus is on now,” he added. “But in a situation like this, which really does push me out of my comfort zone, it will get me to play to the best of my ability.”