In April 1996, John Harkes stood at midfield before an inaugural soccer match at San Jose’s Spartan Stadium, the captain of a new team in a new nationwide league featuring U.S. World Cup players who could finally earn a proper paycheck at home.

Twenty years and three days later, Harkes was again part of something fresh in American soccer, pacing the sideline on a cold Saturday night in Cincinnati as coach of an expansion club making its home debut in the prosperous third flight.

D.C. United and MLS then, FC Cincinnati and USL now.

“I’ve told the players you have a unique opportunity to be part of something built from scratch and you can have an influence on what we can become,” Harkes said this week. “We’ve got an opportunity to do something special here.”

Harkes, now 49, probably spoke the same words 20 years ago when he returned from England to sign with MLS and join his former University of Virginia coach, Bruce Arena, at RFK Stadium for United’s maiden campaign.

Harkes’s new club is off to a good start. After splitting a pair of away matches, Cincinnati defeated the Charlotte Independence, 2-1, before 14,658 at Nippert Stadium. The turnout was larger than MLS matches in Washington and Dallas and considerably bigger than all five games in the second-division North American Soccer League.

Three supporters’ groups were in place: Die Innenstadt (the Inner City), the Pride and the Den. A march to the match led them to the renovated football stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus.

“Unbelievable, electric atmosphere,” Harkes said. The club is aiming for a larger crowd this weekend when geographic rival Louisville City visits the Queen City.

This is Harkes’s first foray as a head coach after a 13-year playing career that included 90 U.S. caps, two World Cups, an Olympics, two MLS Cup titles and a Hall of Fame induction. He worked in United’s youth system. He turned down an offer to become the Rochester Rhinos’ boss before the 2005 season. He was an assistant coach under Arena with the New York Red Bulls in 2006-07. He was slated to lead an NASL expansion team in the D.C. area, Virginia Cavalry, before financial issues sunk the speculative project.

In recent years, Harkes worked national TV and radio jobs and served as technical adviser for McLean Youth Soccer, near his permanent home in Fairfax, Va. His wife Cindi, a former player, oversees McLean girls’ programs. Their son Ian is a midfielder at Wake Forest, their daughter Lauren plays for Clemson and younger daughter Lily is a U-16 player.

FCC ownership approached him last year. A deal was struck in August. In building the Cincinnati roster from scratch, he said, “You have to trust your instincts. It takes time to build relationships and find the right players.”

Harkes assembled a mix of former MLS players, lower-level veterans and locals. Defender Austin Berry, the 2012 MLS rookie of the year with the Chicago Fire, came home to Cincinnati after a year in South Korea.

Former Jamaican national team forward Omar Cummings, who played at the University of Cincinnati and spent eight years in MLS with Colorado and Houston, is on board. So are ex-MLSers Antoine Hoppenot (Philadelphia), Andrew Wiedeman (Dallas, Toronto), Jimmy McLaughlin (Philadelphia), Corben Bone (Chicago, Philadelphia), Eric Stevenson (New York), Kenney Walker (Los Angeles) and Sean Okoli (Seattle, New England).

Okoli, 23, provided the fireworks in the home opener by scoring with a scissors kick.

Last week, several of Harkes’s players watched a replay of that MLS inaugural match, which marked the return of a full-blown pro league since the original NASL’s demise a dozen years earlier.

“They couldn’t believe the haircuts,” Harkes said with a laugh. “They didn’t understand the clock counting down, the shootout rules. The pro game has come a long way.”