CHICAGO -- There’s been no shortage of scrutiny, and skepticism, on FC Cincinnati’s lead-up to their inaugural season in Major League Soccer. From their trade acquisitions to their heavy involvement in the MLS SuperDraft, thought by some to be increasingly irrelevant, the Ohioans have charted their own course as they prepare for life in the top flight, and it’s left many observers convinced that they are in for a humbling expansion campaign.
He’s hardly FCC’s sole architect, but you can credit head coach Alan Koch for that willingness to buck conventional wisdom. And it probably has something to do with his own winding road to this point.
“My evolution as a coach and as a person has just [come] by being exposed to different cultures and different people … the fact that I’ve gone to different environments as a player and as a coach and just taken little bits from everybody,” said Koch in a one-on-one conversation with MLSsoccer.com on the eve of the draft in Chicago.
“There’s not one person that I’d classify as my mentor, and there’s not one person whose philosophy that I’ve liked to instill in our team. Just like our club and just like our city. I think Cincinnati’s very unique; it’s charted its own path and I’ve charted my own path, too.”
Koch has logged some mileage in his 43 years, roaming from his hometown of Durban on South Africa's subtropical east coast to Germany, then Ireland in pursuit of a professional playing career prematurely derailed by a heart condition, on to Vancouver for a college education at Simon Fraser University, south to the United States heartland to begin his coaching journey in rural Texas and Kansas, some time in China during a brief foray into non-soccer work, then back to British Columbia and now Cincy.
Along the way he’s added German language skills to his native English and Afrikaans, picked up a Canadian passport – and spouse, his wife Amy – and experienced just about every level of the chaotic North American soccer landscape, from NAIA on up.
It’s instilled perspective, a broad network of connections around the world and no small amount of pragmatism as he guides FCC along what’s to date the shortest-ever runway from the lower divisions to MLS, rising from their inception to their current position in barely three years.
“I preach about players being projects; our club is a project,” said Koch. “We’ve grown a lot, but we still have a lot to go through. We’re definitely going into the league as underdogs but we’re willing to fight in every single game to see what we can get out of it.”
Thankfully for the Orange and Blue, their coach is known for molding young talent.
Koch got his first sustained exposure to MLS as a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps organization, first as a part-time talent scout while he coached at Simon Fraser, his alma mater and the only NCAA program outside of the United States – and a perennial Division II national-championship contender during his tenure. It was Koch who helped guide decisions like the drafting of Tim Parker, a No. 13 pick in 2015 who blossomed into a star MLS and US national team defender.
Later he became the head coach of Whitecaps 2, Vancouver’s former USL side, where he gave Alphonso Davies his professional debut, the most prominent prospect of a talent-rich crop of homegrown talent that prospered under Koch’s tutelage. Those wondering why Cincinnati are so ready to bet on unproven draftees may wish to consider the words of ‘Caps president Bob Lenarduzzi.
“Our priority first and foremost was to ensure that we were producing players,” Lenarduzzi told MLSsoccer.com this week, recalling Koch’s mandate at Whitecaps 2. “Yes, we didn’t want to go 0-26 or whatever number of games, but the winning part for us was far less important than getting players in and having one or two, in the next season, be potential MLS players. [Koch] was able to achieve both.
“Alphonso came onto the scene that season and we were also able to get to the semifinals of the USL [playoffs]. For us, that was perfect – if you can pick up results but at the same time put a premium on getting those younger players minutes, that’s the best-case scenario … having that very young team perform well in terms of picking up points and playoff success, I think that probably factored into him getting the job in Cincinnati.”
For Koch – who also notes that he can and will call on his global contacts in search of signings from abroad – growth is both a process and a mindset.
“This is my firm belief: I don’t think development is only for young players. You can develop a 15-year-old – I gave Alphonso Davies his debut,” he explained. “But you can also develop an older player. We’ve had several players in our Cincinnati environment, I’d use Corben Bone as an example, a player who had a taste in MLS [from 2010-14], didn’t do very well and then has been with us for a few years and now we’re taking into MLS.
“I feel very, very proud of the work we’ve done with a player like Corben to help him develop. He’s not a teenager by any means, but every player at every age can continue to improve, and it’s our job as coaches to squeeze everything out of every player. If that’s a young teenager, great. If it’s a 32-year-old who’s maybe getting towards the end of his career, we need to get everything we can out of the player, so why not develop him as much as we can?”
Koch seems to have found a balance between optimism and realism as he analyzes the year ahead for Cincy. He’d like his team to “impose ourselves” on opponents where possible, a goal more attainable in front of their huge home crowds at Nippert Stadium. Yet he’s also prepared to bunker and counterattack against more talented adversaries, tactics FCC used to good effect in their upstart run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup in 2017.
Though Koch and his staff nurtured a collective mindset of success in their run to the USL regular-season championship last year, it’s still anyone’s guess how they’ll fare as MLS newcomers. But tenacity, flexibility and cohesion will remain the watchwords through thick and thin.
“Alan has a lot of intangibles as a coach,” said FCC’s technical director Luke Sassano, himself a veteran of North America’s quirky soccer landscape. “He’s a very good man manager, he really enjoys the teaching aspect, bringing players underneath to help develop them, whether it’s a younger player or an older player, really believing in that type of development. I think he’s a very good at building out plans as well.
“When people look at FC Cincinnati, there’s an identity. It’s a winning culture, it’s a team that’s exciting, athletic, dynamic, strong and disciplined defensively. And I think he kind of embodies that.”