You're not an MLS expansion team until you've sent your new crest through the social media gauntlet.
FC Cincinnati enjoyed that ride on Monday night, unveiling their new look for their move from USL to MLS. The crest features "FC CINCINNATI" in striking, bold lettering (a far cry from the USL crest that accentuated the "FC" considerably more than the actual city the fussball football club belongs to), while carrying over the blue and orange coloring and the winged lion that appeared in the original badge.
Social media users had a field day, as has become the norm with any club's new branding, but as polarizing and provocative as crests may be, they ultimately matter quite little when compared to the product on the field. If you churn out a winner, that crest could be clip art, and few supporters will bat an eye. Results over everything. So what's next for FC Cincinnati? Based on comments made to MLS's official website, it may not be the splash that the most successful recent expansion sides have displayed.
It certainly sounds like FCC is planning on going the way of its midwest predecessor, Minnesota United, in limiting spending, not immediately going with the multiple-Designated-Player route and introducing a team with players already familiar to a dedicated fanbase, despite making the leap in division. Given that FCC is joining MLS with the same, short runway that Minnesota had to build its club and not the multi-year luxury that Atlanta and LAFC enjoyed, perhaps it shouldn't be that surprising. Laying the groundwork to land a big fish takes considerable time.
“We know we have to bring in better players that will come in to make us better as a group. For us to be successful in MLS, we have to be significantly better than we were this year and that’s why we’ve worked so hard to bring in the right players,” manager Alan Koch told MLSSoccer.com. “But I think it’s important to maintain the culture. I think the last two years we’ve really grown something very special here, and I think it’d be pretty disrespectful just to brush that aside. So, we will keep a small core so we can continue to build on the mentality and the understanding of the philosophy.”
The club had summer overtures for Fabian Johnson reportedly fall through, and it's unclear whether it will make another run at the versatile U.S. World Cup veteran this winter. It has former Portland Timbers striker Fanendo Adi and ex-San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Fatai Alashe in tow for 2019 and is said to be bringing 8-10 players from its USL side to MLS. FCC steamrolled through the USL regular season, setting single-season records for points and wins, but was tripped up in the playoffs by New York Red Bulls II in the conference semifinal round. In its one chance against MLS competition in 2018, FCC was shut out and fell on penalties to Minnesota, a non-playoff team, in the U.S. Open Cup. On the whole, it was clearly a good enough squad for USL, but reinforcements are going to be necessary.
There are many ways to go about building an MLS expansion roster, but as LAFC and Atlanta United have shown in the last couple of years, investing in starpower and scouting the foreign ranks astutely are safe ways to ensure immediate results. Going on the cheap–as Koch told MLSSoccer.com, "we’ll be the new kids on the block next year with a very fiscally sound budget"–puts a ton of pressure on the newly crowned USL Manager of the Year to get it right with a less talented team on paper and shows an immense belief in building from within.
It's not to say it can't happen. The Red Bulls (in more recent years, anyway) put a premium on largely unheralded young talent that has risen through the USL ranks, spent big in select places, made shrewd trades and believed in their system. They just won a Supporters' Shield and are alive in the hunt for MLS Cup.
For FCC, the next benchmark is Dec. 11, when the club makes five selections in the MLS expansion draft. The mechanism has largely been a miss for most nascent teams, but LAFC found some success with its picks, with starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller and attackers Marco Ureña and Latif Blessing each contributing as supporting cast members in the best regular season by an expansion team in league history. FCC will have a day to peruse through available players, with protected/exempt lists revealed on Dec. 10.
MLS tweaked the regulations for this expansion draft (it has its reasons) and has stipulated that the five clubs who lost players a season ago are exempt from FCC's draft. That means the Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, Columbus Crew, San Jose Earthquakes and Toronto FC won't have to participate.
From there, FCC will have the first pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, which is slated for Jan. 11 in Chicago. In between and after, it'll fill out its roster with what appears to be lower-priced, MLS-tested talent. If that truly is the case, and no marquee name comes aboard, the club can expect another rough run through the social media gauntlet.