FC Cincinnati and the Problem of Building From the Ground Up
When Jurgen Klopp began planning his next move after Borussia Dortmund he allowed his mind to wander.
“I love the history”’ Klopp told the Daily Mirror. “I really am a football romantic. I knew I probably can help. They maybe really need me, in this time. I know what I’m good at.”
It wasn’t just the present or the future that drew Klopp to Liverpool, but the past. He was intoxicated by the club’s historical tapestry, which he could tap into when required.
What if there was nothing that came before you though? No famous nights, no great comebacks, nothing. Just you forging the path. That was the situation Alan Koch found himself in at the start of 2019.
Koch’s team, FC Cincinnati, joined MLS officially in March, and while the club existed for two years in USL between 2016 and 2018 (under the guidance of John Harkes and then Koch) this was a new dawn. It was a chance to build the club in whatever way Koch visualised.
Sadly, the South African lasted just 11 games in charge. If the decision to dismiss him felt ruthless there was a similar unforgiving tone to the accompanying press release that trailed his departure.
“After a series of recent issues and a team culture that had deteriorated, we determined that it’s time to make a change to return a club-centered focus to the team,” FC Cincinnati’s general manager and president Jeff Berding said.
Koch was initially hired as the club’s assistant coach in December 2016 and was promoted in the wake of Harkes’ dismissal. The 44-year-old led FCC to two playoff appearances, an impressive U.S. Open Cup semifinal, and a USL regular-season title. They also, however, finished that year with a second-round playoff loss that opened Koch up to criticism in some quarters.
Those detractors argued that Koch benefitted from a bevy of talent rather than tactical excellence. That theory seemed to play out in MLS to a certain degree. Koch often swapped formations and styles, and it built an ambiguous identity. While he spoke of not ‘type-casting players’ positionally, striker Fanendo Adi articulated a vastly different conclusion.
"Obviously, we’re playing a lot of players out of position and this is something we need to identify. We can’t play guys out of position and expect them to be excellent in those positions where they don’t play,” Adi said.
Koch’s MLS record was difficult to defend; two wins, two draws, and seven defeats was the evidence required for the club to dismiss him. In truth, however, the results were far from the deciding factor. The word ‘culture’ has echoed around the club in the last 48 hours, and was central to Berding’s rhetoric.
“I want to stress I didn’t define success in terms of results,” he said. “I defined success in terms of culture. I defined success in terms of building a foundation, developing an identity. I think when you have those things, success comes. It might not come immediately. But it is the result of when you have a strong foundation and a strong culture.”
In the wake of Koch’s final game in charge he spoke of the club's need to invest in fresh talent. While not necessarily incorrect, given that he helped build this roster, along with the help of technical director Luke Sassano, Koch was always likely to be the first victim when trying to change things.
“We don’t think the foundation has been there, we have not set them up for success, we have not maximized their ability, but we believe we can get those things right and we can get back to getting good results for this club and our city,” Bearding said.
The club will now begin the search for its second head coach in MLS. Ultimately, the struggle for a club in FC Cincinnati’s position is that every footnote feels like a chapter. That was evidenced by the club’s decision to release a t-shirt commemorating their first point earned in Major League Soccer (albeit against the defending champions Atlanta United).
The need for a calm, assured, next step is key. MLS teams across the league are trying to build something more sustainable than a trophy or a cup. Many hands work to sculpt that finished project, and that is true of the situation at FC Cincinnati right now.
Koch was not wrong to want more talent, but he was in suggesting he had coached them to their maximum potential. As for those that remain, the hope now is that in deciding what they did not want they have moved a significant step closer towards what they do want.