There are many ways to lead.
Raymon ‘Ray’ Gaddis, FC Cincinnati’s 33-year-old defender, has his own style. Stoop-shouldered, shirt always tucked in just so, he won’t seek the spotlight. Not ever. But his quiet mentorship, and determination to stand up to all comers big or small, has helped the Ohio club go from MLS laughing stock to the toast of the league.
Regular season front-runners (eight points ahead of the New England Revolution at the time of publication), they’re also two wins away from a first U.S. Open Cup crown.
“It’s a historic time for the club,” Gaddis said of the possibilities alive for his team, who were knocked out of the inaugural Leagues Cup in the Round of 32 by Nashville SC – and are now fully focussed on the league and Open Cup. “And you need to be ready for those moments when they come.”
The circumstances of Gaddis’ arrival at FC Cincinnati tell all you need to know about his value – in the locker-room and out on the field. GM Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan were brought in during the fall of 2021 with a complicated brief: Fix a broken club.
Since debuting in MLS in 2019, FC Cincinnati had finished bottom of the table three seasons running.
Changes were required. So Albright and Co lined up stars like the outstanding schemer and All-Star Lucho Acosta, who they hoped would link up with star-in-the-making Brandon Vazquez. Added to former Argentina youth sensation Alvaro Barreal, there was a sudden inrush of sumptuous talent.
But something was still missing. Something quieter. More nuanced. Neither Albright (Gaddis’ former teammate for a season with the Union) nor Noonan (Gaddis’ former coach at the Union) let the fact that their old pal Ray was retired (as of March 2021) dissuade them.
“His character and leadership, second to none,” said Noonan, who also noted that, at the time of his retirement for family reasons, Gaddis was playing at the “top of his game” for the Supporters Shield-winning Union.
Gaddis, the eight-season veteran of MLS out of Indianapolis, Indiana and West Virginia University, was, in a meaningful way, the most important puzzle piece. An intangible, whose impact is felt in every corner of the club, he plays much bigger than his 5-9, 150 lb frame suggests. And it’s no coincidence that his arrival has overlapped with Cincinnati’s rise to their current lofty perch.
“Every player has stepped up,” said the wide defender in classic Gaddis-fashion – always deflecting attention. “No matter what, they’ve all gone and done the job. In the league or in the Open Cup.”
Slim Open Cup wins over second-division Louisville City and New York City FC earlier this year led to a tension-filled Round of 16 contest on the road against the New York Red Bulls.
Gaddis, often the wise old leader in a rotated squad of youngsters, revels in what he’s seen from his teammates in this year’s Open Cup run. He points to the shootout win over NYRB, which required overcoming a stoppage-time equalizer and grueling extra-time, as the highlight. “That’s been the biggest moment,” said Gaddis, pointing out the play of “Joey” (Akpunonu) and Alec Kann (back-up goalkeeper) on that day. “We were playing lots of games then with very little rest and the guys really stepped up.”
“It all starts with the coach setting the tone and the veteran players, like myself, too,” said Gaddis, who was crucial in the Quarterfinal win over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. “But keeping it fresh and keeping it fun is important. You need the young guys to be hungry and it’s been a pleasure to watch them get the opportunities and seize the moment this year.”
Experience is among the major reasons Gaddis was coaxed out of his retirement. He smiles when he talks about “the young ones” in the team. “I always tell them to control the controllables, especially in the Open Cup, where anything can happen and you better not take any team or anything for granted. Take care of business, don’t take anything lightly.”
Open Cup Pedigree
He knows all about the Open Cup. A lesser man might shake his head at the hardships it’s caused him. But Gaddis, a three-time loser in Open Cup Final games (2013, 2014 and 2018) during his near-decade with the Philadelphia Union, always sees the bright side.
“I’m a focus-on-today kind of guy,” he said with a smile.
“I don’t have any mixed emotions about that [coming so close to the Open Cup trophy but missing out,” Gaddis insisted. “That’s why you play the game. It’s another opportunity to try and do something special and get to a championship. And you never know, maybe one day things go your way.”
FC Cincinnati’s playing roster – and backroom staff – is fully loaded with Open Cup champions. USMNT striker Vazquez won one with Atlanta United in 2019. Coach Noonan has three from his playing days with the Sounders and Revs. GM Albright won it in 2005 with the Galaxy and the recently retired Jeff Larentowicz (twice a champ with the Revs and Atlanta) is part of the coaching staff.
This all points to a profound connection between our historic Open Cup and FC Cincinnati – a club born only in 2016, but who reached a Cinderella Semifinal as a second-tier USL club back in 2017.
Now at the Semifinal stage of this 2023 Open Cup, which began back in March with 99 teams from every tier of the game in the U.S., the Davids are all gone. Only Goliaths remain.
FC Cincinnati’s opponent in the Last Four is one Inter Miami CF. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. When last an Open Cup game was played – in early June – the Floridians were rock-bottom in MLS play and quite lucky to squeak by second-division Birmingham Legion in their Open Cup Quarterfinal.
But now, with the injection of a trio of global superstars led by Lionel Messi, they’re a different entity entirely. Inter’s title-winning run in the recently concluded Leagues Cup – and Messi’s incessant scoring – will mean FC Cincinnati have a hill to climb if they want to reach a debut Open Cup Final (scheduled for September 27th).
If you think Gaddis is the kind to shy away from that challenge, you’d be mistaken. He’s got one thing on his mind ahead of the Semifinal on home soil at TQL Stadium – where the home fans have been a huge part of FC Cincinnati’s transformation from bottom feeders to pack leaders.
“Fans were coming out even when the team was losing,” said Gaddis, who remembers a similar origin story at his old club Philadelphia Union. “And now, with a winning team, it’s just heightened. The atmosphere. It’s amazing. Electric every time we take the field.
“It’s a vital piece of what we’re doing here,” he said in the run-up to his fourth Open Cup Semifinal.
Messi & ‘Something Special’ Looms
Gaddis is a favorite among those fans that pack the Bailey at TQL week in and week out, filling the air with orange and blue smoke. Let’s face it, he’s hard not to like (unless, of course, you’re an opposition attacker and you don’t care for constant, relentless attention).
While Gaddis is always committed to the credo of take-it-one-game-at-a-time, there’s a trophy not far on the horizon. And that reality looms large for all involved with FC Cincinnati.
“We always wanted to do something special here,” said Gaddis, up for the test of Messi and his trusty lieutenant Sergio Busquets – and the very man who could well be tasked with locking up Jordi Alba on the night of the Semifinal. “To bring a trophy here for the first time in the MLS era – you have to do your all every time you go out there. Against every opponent.
“It’s like my grandmother says, ‘you have to put some things up on the shelf for you to reach toward’,” Gaddis smiled, an elusive trophy so close he can feel its weight. “It’s never out of your mind or out of sight and you have to be ready for it when the time comes.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.