MASON, Ohio -- Did FC Cincinnati bring too many USL players to MLS?
Heads turned around the league over the winter as Alan Koch and Luke Sassano opted to promote 11 players from their USL roster to their 2019 MLS team. Looking back at recent history, that expansion strategy might be a big risk.
Minnesota United and Orlando City are the two recent expansion clubs most comparable to FC Cincinnati. Both rose from medium-sized markets in the lower leagues to MLS in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Neither brought as many players with them as Cincinnati have. Orlando carried eight over; Minnesota brought seven, plus former NASL star Miguel Ibarra, acquired from Liga MX’s Club Leon. Both squads missed the playoffs in their first MLS season.
FC Cincinnati’s sum of 11 carryover players ranks as the second-highest ever, behind only the 2011 expansion edition of the Vancouver Whitecaps. They brought 13 to MLS and finished last in the Western Conference.
“We were the first USL team to sign a Designated Player. That had never been done before,” noted president and GM Jeff Berding at Tuesday’s State of the Team address in Cincinnati.
The front office aimed to effectively assemble a second-division all-star team, at considerable expense. The season’s results reflected the investment, as the club ran away with the USL regular-season title. They ultimately won it by a margin of 11 points, despite floundering in the single-elimination USL playoffs.
Emmanuel Ledesma is a notable example of Cincinnati’s breed of second-tier talent. A product of the Genoa academy, the Argentine spent three seasons in the English Championship before landing in America. He was USL’s 2018 MVP based on a 16-goal, 16-assist season.
When asked whether his success would translate to MLS, Ledesma flashed a smile and said “For sure, why not? I’m working hard every single day. I’m positive in my mind, and I’m going to give my all. Let the season start, and we’re going to show everyone that Cincinnati is ready for MLS.”
After six weeks of preseason, FC Cincinnati’s seasoned MLS players are singing the same chorus. Greg Garza, acquired in a December trade with Atlanta United, said the USL players are ready for the top flight.
“Everything happens for a reason within your career," he said. "Those guys had an MLS team within the USL league last season. They won the regular season easily. All the guys that stayed here are deserving to stay here. All of us are here for a reason, for our talent, and I think that’s what builds a great team.”