FC Cincinnati mark long-range MLS quest with hectic, “fun” draft day

Alan Koch - MLS backdrop

CHICAGO – One way to tell the story of FC Cincinnati’s hectic inaugural MLS SuperDraft experience is with numbers:

Then there were the innumerable phone calls, text messages, emails and other means of correspondence that flew back and forth among Cincy and their fellow MLS teams – “Hundreds. Hundreds,” was how Berding put it – as they wheeled, dealed, haggled and passed this week.

But there’s another figure to consider, one that puts the club’s busy draft day in true context: 1,249.

That’s the number of days – three years and four months – from the date of FCC’s official birth as a club to the moment Berding and head coach Alan Koch posed for the cameras with their first-ever MLS draft pick while holding a Cincy jersey.

“We worked very hard to get to this spot. We’ve been singularly focused for three and a half years to be out there to make that pick, Frankie Amaya,” said Berding. “So you certainly think of everywhere we’ve been, all the work from when we launched the club, August the 12th of 2015 – this was our ambition. This was the vision.

“Our plan was, we were going to be here, this year, to make this pick. Literally – in the fourth year we’ll be in MLS, making this pick. That was the plan.”

Viewed in the light of Cincinnati’s rocket-fueled ascent from USL expansion side with big dreams in an unproven soccer market to MLS’s newest club, their draft-day activity was less about meeting essential roster needs and more about acquiring prospects with the personality and potential to hop on for the ride and do some growing of their own.

“We’re a club that’s heading in the right direction,” said Koch, “but we still have a long way to go. We’re the new kids on the block. We talked about players that we just signed or are bringing in as ‘projects,’ but we’re a project club too. We’ve still got a long way to go and today’s a big part of that.”

Keen to build a culture of success, Cincy put a higher priority on hunting trophies in their final season in USL rather than evaluating talent with an eye towards year one in MLS. That paid off when they won the second division’s regular-season championship, and they hope to sustain the momentum that generated when they kick off in a much different setting come March.

“We had a very decided plan that we developed with the support of our owners to have a record-setting year in the USL. So we went out and got some of the best players available in division two, whether they were from NASL or USL, to build a roster that would be a championship roster,” explained Berding.

“We have our first piece of hardware in our club right now, for winning the regular season. I know other clubs would do it differently, where they might have used the year to develop and evaluate lots of younger players. But winning is very important to FC Cincinnati. We win for our city, our city’s very hungry for a professional team to represent and fight and win, and we used our strategy this year to build on that.”

That mindset guided Friday’s selections of first-rounders Amaya and Wake Forest defender Logan Gdula.

“It’s fun. We’re building our club,” said Berding. “We got a lot of great pieces and this is an opportunity to add some players with character off the charts, work off the charts. We love both these guys. There’s a draft full of terrific players, but these are two players that we really felt great about both in terms of where they are today and what their future can be.”

The second round saw Cincy pick up Notre Dame midfielder Tommy McCabe and the goalkeeping duo of Jimmy Hague and Ben Lundt. At present it appears they face long odds to make FCC’s MLS roster – Koch acknowledged on Thursday that latter-round picks are essentially trialists for the upcoming preseason – but could well find themselves loaned out to USL teams should Cincy decide to invest in them as longer-range development prospects.

Koch said the entire FCC staff were working the phones with counterparts around the league “to see what’s out there” and “trying to gauge the market level” for their draft assets, and they came close to swinging a deal with LAFC to swap the top pick for a package of allocation money.

Those talks ran deep enough to prompt a timeout ahead of their first selection. But the pot never quite got as rich as they wanted, and they were happy to sit tight and snare Amaya.

“This is a draft and you choose players – obviously we had to do an assessment in terms of which players we’d like to pick and what we can get out of them. But we also have to be open to business,” said Koch, “plus make an assessment in terms of what’s the actual financial value, or trade value was worthwhile for us. But in the end, we decided to keep him, because we believe in him.”