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FC Cincinnati's Fired Coach Is The Latest Casualty Of MLS's Misguided Expansion Strategy

Photo: Joe Robbins (Getty Images)

After seven winless games in a row, in which the team looked worse than bad, the FC Cincinnati brain trust has mercifully fired manager Alan Koch, replacing him with assistant Yoann Damet in the interim, while conducting a proper search for a permanent replacement. The club put out a statement on Tuesday that essentially placed all the blame for the poor start on Koch:

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. This decision is not driven by recent game results themselves, but rather the underpinnings that have led to those results. We have not come close to maximizing the talent we have in the dressing room this year, nor have we seen a foundation being built that will set us up for success this year and into next year.

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Anyone with a brain could have seen this coming from the moment Cincy got its own shiny MLS toy to subsidize. The quality of MLS as a whole may be improving steadily, but there are still too many slots to fill and not enough quality players to go around. That was probably true before the latest wave of MLS expansion, which began in earnest with the additions of New York City and Orlando City ahead of the 2015 season, and it will only be more true as the Ponzi scheme expands in the coming years.

Koch’s biggest failure is to have picked a small-market expansion team to try to push towards the MLS equivalent of relevance. Of the six teams to have entered the league since 2015, three have been solid-to-league-changingly-great, and three have been straight butt. You could point to the successes of NYCFC and LAFC, or the galactically-successful Atlanta United last season (both on the field and in the stands) and say that MLS is in a good spot with its expansion. But that misses the point.

All three of those teams came in guns blazing, ready to spend and in big markets were ready to embrace them. NYCFC are owned by Manchester City’s City Football Group. LAFC have a fuck-ton of rich owners and a prime locale. Atlanta United are owned by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and it was his ability to let his soccer team use his football team’s butthole-wielding stadium that, as much as anything else, led to last year’s attendance record.

On the other hand, the other three teams to join have been pretty terrible. Orlando City joined MLS with former Ballon d’Or winner Kaka on the team, and have never sniffed the playoffs. They also fell victim last season to MLS’s inane transfer rules, which caused them to lose the only good player they actually had on the team in the Cyle Larin debacle. Minnesota United have finished among the dregs of the Western Conference both seasons of their existence, and though they have started well this year, it wouldn’t shock anyone if they slip down there again.

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And then there’s FC Cincinnati, which took a team that won the 2018 USL regular season championship and only made superficial improvements in the transition to MLS this year. Koch was given the unenviable task of making the on-field product at least not embarrassing for a city that, to its credit, has thrown its support behind the team, at least in the stands. (Cincy currently sit third in the average attendance rankings, despite having a stadium that only holds around 33,000 spectators). Clearly, he failed.

Losses beget cultural problems, something both the FC Cincy statement and the news story on (the unfortunately named) MLSsoccer.com both pointed to as one of the reasons for Koch’s dismissal. It’s no surprise that an angsty locker room would fail to gel in light of all that losing. The bigger problem is that Cincy, like Orlando and Minnesota before them, were set up to fail. There simply isn’t enough talent queuing up to play for an expansion team in a Midwest city owned by an executive branch that isn’t willing to drop massive chunks of change to make them competitive from the word go.

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This duality between newly added have and have-nots will likely play out again next season, with the David Beckham-fronted Inter Miami likely succeeding where Nashville SC will struggle. MLS might be a clown show, but it’s smart about managing expectations, making sure to pair every Goofus with an attendant Gallant.

And so, the league can keep pointing out the successes of teams like NYCFC and Atlanta United while helping push the party line that the only reason Cincinnati are such an early disaster is that they hired the wrong coach. Of course, MLS has no monopoly on bad teams that find themselves woefully overmatched in a country’s top division. But at least those other leagues make their teams earn their admission ticket on the pitch rather than letting them buy their way in, and provide some much-needed pruning of the bullshit at the end of every season.

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