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FC Cincinnati 2016 USL season preview

John Harkes
John Harkes
Chad Hollingsworth

Year founded: 2016

Affiliation: Independent
2015 record, standing in conference: N/A
2015 playoffs: N/A

Projected/ideal starting XI: Mitch Hildebrandt, Pat McMahon, Austin Berry, Harrison Delbridge, Tyler Polak, Kenny Walker, Corben Bone, Jimmy McLaughlin, Ross Tomaselli, Antoine Hoppenot, Sean Okoli (Projecting a formation is difficult; FC Cincinnati has used no fewer than three formations at the start of its five preseason matches.)

FC Cincinnati is one of six expansion sides set to begin play in the USL in 2016, and the only one in the Eastern Conference not to share an ownership group with an MLS franchise. The team will be led by US soccer legend John Harkes, who is making his debut as the head coach of a professional club. Harkes has assembled a roster replete with experience in the USL and NASL. Having skilled players with a knowledge of the league should get FC Cincinnati started on a forward foot in its inaugural season.

FC Cincinnati has not been on the wrong side of the score line in five preseason matches. The club returned from the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic in Bradenton, Florida with a championship trophy, having vanquished NYCFC and Danish club HB Køge. Since returning north, the club has drawn Indy Eleven and defeated Xavier University. Preseason results have no direct bearing on the regular season, but FC Cincinnati has gained invaluable experience while building chemistry, confidence, and momentum.

Why you should watch FC Cincinnati in 2016: Exerted efforts at marketing and a bevy of sponsors have led outspoken critics to label FC Cincinnati as plastic. The naysayers need only to pay attention as the season progresses to find out that club has substance. Too much talent has been assembled for the club to flop, and Harkes has so far demonstrated the flexibility to get that talent on the field in creative ways. A groundswell of support, evidenced by strong season ticket sales, will help to provide an enjoyable gameday experience at Nippert Stadium.

3 Players to watch
Pat McMahon: The left back comes to Cincinnati after being a stalwart on the back line for the best defense in the history of the league, the 2015 USL Champion Rochester Rhinos. If the rest of the Cincinnati defense plays on par with McMahon, it will be a frustrating season for the opposition.

Corben Bone: After two seasons of relatively lackluster statistical output for Wilmington Hammerheads FC, a change of scenery may have been what the midfielder required. Bone has performed well in preseason, providing the link in the FC Cincinnati attack and scoring on a spectacular volley. He has also demonstrated a modicum of versatility by lying deep in the formation and playing defensively.

Mitch Hildebrandt: The man guarding the goal could be the biggest wild-card for FC Cincinnati this season. Hildebrandt has three years of professional experience with Minnesota United, but he only made 15 appearances for the NASL side. His ability to steer his outfield mates into position and the ball out of the net will be imperative.

The 2016 season will be a success if... FC Cincinnati finishes near the top of the USL Eastern Conference table and completely outpaces the rest of the conference at the gate. The club's operating budget is matched only by its lofty aspirations, which include the desire to be invited to join a future MLS expansion class. The only hope of transforming fantasy into reality is by approximating the success that Sacramento Republic FC achieved on and off the pitch in its USL debut in 2014.