FC Cincinnati new coach ready to tackle new season

By John Erardi, Contributing Writer

Photos and video by Phil Didion

Alan Koch's first memory of soccer came at four years old, sitting underneath a table in the pouring rain watching his father play the game in South Africa.

"I was completely engrossed,” said Koch, FC Cincinnati’s new coach. “We moved to Durban when I was six which is when I started playing. I was absolutely hooked. I played every sport under the rainbow growing up, but soccer was my passion. It was my everything.”

At 17, Koch signed professionally, and played in Germany and Ireland, but had to give up playing at 25, halted by what he calls a “minor” heart ailment.

We didn’t talk much about what a kick in the gut that prognosis had to be for somebody with his great passion for playing the game, but he seems to have found his home in coaching.

Koch was an All-American at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, and played professionally in the South African first division with Reservoir Hills United. He also signed with Preussen Krefeld in the German fourth division, adding a stint with Limerick FC in Ireland’s first division. Before beginning his professional career, he was a member of the South African Olympic Team and captained the South African Schoolboys team. 

Koch fully realized how much he missed soccer during a brief, six-month career change when he worked in sales for a New Jersey-based lighting company with accounts in China, where Koch did much of his work.

“It was great international experience, but I was talking about light fixtures, not exactly up my alley,” he said. “I’d been passionate about kicking a soccer ball all day long. A friend of mine who was coach at (Simon Fraser), called me and said, ‘How’d you like to take a major pay cut and come be my assistant coach? After that I coached in Japan, Texas, Kansas and back to Simon Fraser as head coach,” leading the team into the NCAA D-2 Final Four two years in a row.

From there, he hooked up with the Vancouver White Caps of Major League Soccer, working in scouting and the draft, then became head coach of the Whitecaps FC 2 team, an affiliate of the big club, where he led the team to its first-ever playoff victory and another win on top of it.

If you notice a trend there, that’s because there is one: he’s always been able, gradually, to get the best out of his players.

FC Cincinnati (1-2) hosts its home opener Saturday night, April 15, at Nippert Stadium at the University of Cincinnati.

"I was impressed with the (venue) as soon as I walked in," said Koch, pointing to the base of the horseshoe up toward Corry Boulevard. "It’s a very impressive stadium.  And that was when it was empty.  I’ve been in several major-league soccer stadiums with the Vancouver Whitecaps. There aren’t many, if any, that are as special as this one.”

Good things figure to happen for this team with time. Starting with three road games, and now hosting three straight home games against such tough competition (St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Louisville) in the one-step-up United Soccer League (second division this year; was third division last year), are undoubtedly going to make for some growing pains. 

“The level of soccer in the stadium week-in and week-out is going to be at a high level and that should be exciting for the fans that come out,” Koch said.

We were sitting on a bench at field level beneath the giant scoreboard at Nippert. To the right, the ribbon boards were already heralding the second-year sheriff in town -- "FC Cincinnati" -- which last year grabbed the attention of Cincinnati and MLS (Major League Soccer) with huge home crowds.

"When I saw what the club was doing from afar – the atmosphere in this city, how people were embracing the sport that I loved, and the club’s aspirations of where they’d like to go – that intrigued me,” Koch said.

He appears uniquely qualified to take over for the departed first-year coach John Harkes.

His background in South Africa is fascinating, because his young playing life transitioned the era from apartheid to post-apartheid in 1991. Like so many athletes, Koch didn’t “see” color – he simply wanted to play with and against the best competition. He played park ball with multicultural pickup teams; he also found himself as the only Caucasian player on an otherwise all-black pro team just out of high school in 1993.

“It didn’t make any difference to me or my teammates,” Koch said. “We were all the same – we just wanted to advance as far in the game as we could. I had the bug. It was one of the few professional clubs in the city I grew up in.”

Crazy how sports interconnects. 

For example, I’ve always been impressed at how college and pro coaches will scour the world to find the best players. Back in 2005 when I did a full season’s coverage of the Cincinnati Kings pro soccer team (owner Yacoub Abdallahi and general manager J.T. Roberts), one of my favorite players to watch and write about was Kevin McCloskey of Belfast, who had played soccer at the University of Rio Grande, and NAIA school in southeastern Ohio, a 15-minute drive from Point Pleasant, W.Va.

I had never heard of the U of Rio Grande before then, and here FC Cincinnati has a player from there (a Brit, Paul Nicholson).  When Koch played for Simon Fraser, it was the only Canadian school in the NAIA, "and when I coached there," Koch told me, "it was the only non-American school in the NCAA." He, too, has known about Rio Grande's soccer program going way back.

Small world indeed.

“I think that’s the true beauty of our game,” Koch said. “It’s a global sport, one of the very few that transcends the whole globe. There’s a passion for this sport everywhere in the world. You can go anywhere. You don’t even have to speak the same language. You start talking X’s and O’s, and we all have something in common.”

We had a good laugh talking about Koch coaching in Texas, the first place he lived in the U.S.

“I lived in Japan before I went to Texas, and I would say that I experienced more culture shock in Texas than I had going to Japan,” Koch said. “I’d never been around cowboys and big belt buckles, spurs and all that. It’s a very distinct culture.”

“Even within the United States,” I noted, having spent my share of time in Texas. (My son was born there.)

“I have some great friends from my time in Texas – I was there for three years (at Midwestern State University), and I loved it,” Koch said. “They’re Americans – but they’re Texans.”

Man, could I ever more agree with that.

Koch also spent some time in Kansas (Baker University), his first real taste of the Midwest.  In Ireland, he played for Limerick, which people will recognize as the hometown of Frank McCourt in the best-selling book, “Angela’s Ashes.”

Koch appears to me to be a “people person.” He even got his master’s degree in human resources from Midwestern State. He’s married to Amy; they have two daughters, Aurora, 16, and Paris, 25.

They’ve visited several times, and ultimately will be back when school’s out in Vancouver.

“They like it here,” Koch said. “Cincinnati is unique; it’s not like this everywhere (the enthusiasm for soccer).”

And, yes, he’s had Skyline Chili.

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “One of my good friends is from Ohio and lived here (in Cincinnati) for several years, and he said, ‘You’ve got to go to the chili parlor. It’s one or the things you do in Cincinnati.’ And I’ve had one or two of the local brews. Very good.”

OK, he’s got the preliminaries out the way.

Now it’s time for the return of the beautiful game to Cincinnati