Luke Sassano, Alan Koch - FC Cincinnati - press conference
Sam Greene/Cincinnati Enquirer via USA TODAY NETWORK

FC Cincinnati look to Sporting KC as blueprint for long-term MLS success

MILFORD, Ohio — As FC Cincinnati’s technical director, Luke Sassano is laying the foundation for future success. And to do so, he’s taking lessons from successful MLS originals like Sporting Kansas City, who face FCC for the first time ever on Sunday at Nippert Stadium (3 pm ET | ESPN in US, TSN5 in Canada).

“Our front office has visited them,” said Sassano. “Their stadium, their training facility, how they’ve done things off the field as well. There are pieces we can take from any successful organization, and Sporting is definitely one of them that we’d like to learn from.”

Separated by about 600 miles, the two Midwestern cities are similar in size and share a reputation for friendly people, unpredictable spring weather and a passion for soccer.

“We’re unique in our own market in terms of what we are trying to build,” said Sassano when comparing Cincinnati to KC. “Obviously, Kansas City is an older franchise, but one of the main things that sticks out is the enthusiastic fanbase.

“Being a player for Sporting during the transition from the Wizards to Sporting KC, the fanbase really illuminated the city. I think the feeling and being here for over a year now, you can feel that presence. It’s a soccer city.”

Sassano spent the final year and a half of his MLS career with Sporting, playing under Peter Vermes until a series of injuries led him to retirement in 2012. Sassano admires his former manager and how he’s built the roster FC Cincinnati will face on Sunday.

Luke Sassano (left) during his Sporting KC career | Gerry Images

“They’ve had time to build each year and grow each year,” Sassano said. “When you’re maximizing your resources, whether it’s through scouting, finding undervalued players, or having players at a low budget charge coming up through the academy or through the draft, you can then afford to go in the market and find players that are maybe not fully maximum-budget, but can be at that very productive level.

“The draft is not what it used to be, but look at guys that have kept that longevity – Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, [Seth] Sinovic. I think that’s an important piece, the longevity, keep the core and continue to build on that.”

As an expansion team, Cincy acquired a veteran MLS core through the expansion draft and trades. Players like Kendall Waston, Greg Garza and Victor Ulloa joined under those mechanisms, along with “undervalued” European imports like Leo Bertone, Mathieu Deplagne and Przemyslaw Tyton.

Cincinnati also made a splash in the SuperDraft by stockpiling early draft picks so they could build for the future. Their draft class of five players all signed MLS contracts in February. US U-20 international and No. 1 overall pick Frankie Amaya headlines the group, and made his MLS debut in Week 5.

“We’re trying to build a team that is going to be very competitive,” Sassano said. “Our ultimate goal is always to win. But at the same time, we want to make sure we’re building the foundations as we’re growing. Our roster construction has a similar mindset. We wanted to find guys that were undervalued, guys that have won certain places. Guys that are of a good age, that can make the transition in a short preseason, to be competitive from Day One.

“We have a lot of room to grow and improve. What KC has done with their roster is utilizing the mechanisms in the league, and obviously Peter has been around a long time, so he knows how to do that pretty successfully.”