Gerard Nijkamp’s first opportunity to explore Cincinnati came while running the Flying Pig 10K with his wife earlier this month. As FC Cincinnati’s newly-hired general manager, Nijkamp’s job truly is a marathon, not a sprint.
After having only 277 days from being awarded a franchise a year ago Wednesday to playing its first match, FCC hasn’t had sufficient time to do pretty much anything. The roster build fell short of acquiring enough depth to offset injuries and make a serious playoff push in the first season, the stadium deal has been messy, and a coaching change after 11 matches was a bad optic.
The good news for FCC fans is that the finish line isn’t Oct. 6. The finish line is 2021 – or should be — when the new West End stadium opens with a team FCC hopes can consistently contend for one of the top seven spots in the Eastern Conference and chase some silverware.
With that goal in mind, FCC got their man in Nijkamp. They didn’t get him in December. They got him at the end of May. But they got him.
“We’re certainly going to be smarter with Gerard running the soccer side,” said team president Jeff Berding who happily handed the GM title over to Nijkamp. “I was blessed to have 20 years with the Cincinnati Bengals. I didn’t have 20 years in professional soccer.”
Then why did Berding spend the past year as the point man for building an MLS franchise when other expansion clubs such as Orlando City made a general manager among their first hires? It all goes back to time. In 277 days, FCC more than tripled its staff, worked to finalize a stadium deal, constructed a roster and a coaching staff and built its brand. But much was left undone.
“In comparison to the other (expansion teams), we only had so much time,” Berding said. “We built our club in a short period of time from when we were awarded a franchise a year ago yesterday to our first game. We didn’t have the 1,000-plus days some of our predecessors had.”
And that is not anyone’s fault. Cincinnati wanted an MLS bid. MLS gave them the opportunity to enter the league in 2019, with all of the advantages and disadvantages inherent in coming in so soon but also alone without another expansion partner.
So, here they sit. At the bottom of the conference standings with 11 points in 14 matches, a slew of injuries and players acclimating themselves to a second head coach’s system in less than three months. But rather than look back, FCC is looking forward.
That’s where Nijkamp comes in. And he has done this before.
Nijkamp, 49, took over as technical director of Dutch club PEC Zwolle the season after they were promoted to the Eredivisie, the top league in the Netherlands, following eight years in the second division.
He helped lead a club that survived bankruptcy in the late ’90s to a semifinal showing in the Dutch Cup his first year, before winning it outright in his second season to earn a berth in the 2014 Europa League. That season they won the Dutch Super Cup while finishing a franchise-best sixth in the league.
PEC Zwolle finished in the top half of the Eredivisie table each of the next two seasons.
“I showed in the last seven years that I can build a club to the highest level in our country in Eredivisie and win cups,” Nijkamp said on a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “To develop a youth academy structure. To develop a scouting and recruitment system and to develop the value of the first team. I think that is a competence of mine and that’s the challenge I’m facing now, to build together and get FC Cincinnati to the next level.”
At FCC, Nijkamp will direct all soccer-related areas, including roster management, roster budget, salary cap administration, player acquisition and scouting, sporting data analysis, oversee the first-team coaching staff, sports performance and medical staffs and the youth development programs.
Nijkamp will report to Berding and manage the first-team head coach, which at the moment is interim manager Yoann Damet. Nijkamp — who is fluent in Dutch, English, and German — will help spearhead the search for FCC’s permanent head coach, a process that Berding says already is underway.
From a football standpoint – or soccer, as Nijkamp corrected himself to say on the conference call to perhaps sound more American – his style appears to be consistent with the possession-oriented approach that FCC prefers to play and is currently refining under Damet.
“First it is the club philosophy, and inside of that is the identity of the club and how we want to show ourselves on the pitch,” Nijkamp said. “Inside of that, how do we want to play? Do we want to play the long ball? Do we want to play the second ball? Do we want to play from the back? How do we want to create chances and score goals? We want to put that in a plan.”
This will all take time, and Nijkamp isn’t exactly hitting the ground running. For the next couple months, he will split time with his former club to assist with transitioning his role over to his replacement, Mike Willems. While logging flight time between Cincinnati and the Netherlands, Nijkamp will provide input on FCC’s coaching search and familiarize himself with the staff, the roster and MLS.
“In my country, MLS is visible,” Nijkamp said. “FOX Sports, every week we have a live match. Highlights from other matches. I have a long time in football. I’ve seen the process of building the MLS. I’ve seen the (improving) quality of the competition.”
FCC needs a clearer direction, and perhaps Nijkamp can help provide that. His first objective should be to define who the club wants to be in the short-term before trying to solidify a long-term plan. To this point, that plan has been all over the place. The fact that FCC fired its first head coach before hiring its first general manager says all you need to know.
With Nijkamp in place, the view into FCC’s future could become less cloudy. Berding believes that’s already the case.
“We have a clear vision and an ambitious vision for club,” Berding said. “When our new stadium opens, we’re going to have the resources to back that vision.”
Time will tell. To this point, time has been the enemy.