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2017 USL Season Preview: FC Cincinnati

No Ugo? No problem. FC Cincinnati has re-loaded and taken aim at a deep run to the USL Cup.

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Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Year founded: 2016

Affiliation: Independent

2016 record: 16-8-6, 3rd place in Eastern Conference

2016 playoffs: Conference quarterfinals

Key additions: Djiby Fall, Daryl Fordyce, Victor Mansaray, Kadeem Dacres, Matt Bahner

Key departures: Sean Okoli

Projected/ideal starting XI (4-2-3-1): Mitch Hildebrandt, Matt Bahner, Harrison Delbridge, Austin Berry, Tyler Polak, Kenney Walker, Aodhan Quinn, Victor Mansaray, Daryl Fordyce, Andrew Wiedeman, Djiby Fall

FC Cincinnati’s 2016 season ranks among the best inaugural seasons in USL history. President & General Manager Jeff Berding and Head Coach John Harkes assembled a team that captured the passion of an untapped soccer market while marching toward the top of the USL East table. Tens of thousands of faithful supporters followed the club from the opening match to a home playoff berth.

With an MLS expansion bid in the balance, Cincinnati must prove it can replicate and sustain the success from its first season. The team must do so with a new man at the helm of the technical staff. Harkes was replaced in the offseason by Alan Koch, who led Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 to the USL Western Conference finals in 2016. Koch is blessed with a Cincinnati roster that is much deeper in talent at almost every position than it was a season ago, though there are some concerns about the depth of the back line.

Why you should watch Cincinnati in 2017

FC Cincinnati was one of the more notable stories at any level of American soccer in 2016, largely due to the record-breaking crowds that it attracted. The early enthusiasm was sustained by attractive, attacking soccer that produced results. 2017 promises to provide more of the same. The addition of athletic goal scorers to a core of key returning players will provide Koch with tactical flexibility, which should result in exciting play and favorable scorelines.

3 Players to watch

Matt Bahner: The former USL All-League defender returns to the league and his hometown after a run with Jacksonville in the NASL. Bahner appears to have supplanted Pat McMahon at right back, due in no small part to his ability to contribute to the attack. If he is able to gel with the three returning starters, the Cincinnati back line should be formidable.

Victor Mansaray: Watch him in Cincinnati while you can. The young forward is on loan in the Queen City from Seattle Sounders FC and is a member of the US U-20 Men’s National Team. If recent preseason trends hold true, the natural striker will display his speed and athleticism on the wing for FC Cincinnati.

Djiby Fall: The Senegalese veteran of European professional leagues may not be familiar to American soccer enthusiasts, but fans around the USL will recognize his name by season’s end. Fall is poised to more than capably replace Sean Okoli at striker. FC Cincinnati may have acquired its first 20-goal scorer.

The 2017 season will be a success if...

FC Cincinnati proves it can consistently earn results against the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Cincinnati earned a home playoff game by finishing third in the East last season, but Cincy only posted a winning record against one playoff team. It isn’t championship-or-bust for the burgeoning franchise, but the Cincinnati market has grown weary of its sports teams going one-and-done in the postseason.

Read more:

FC Cincinnati in ‘a decent place’

FC Cincinnati Depth Chart

FCC Notebook