The Cincinnati Soccer Talk crew received a great email recently from Doc. It was so great we asked the staff members at CST to chime in on it with the latest CST Roundtable.
Here’s the email in question:
Hi CST crew,
The season is winding down and it couldn’t be clearer: mistakes were made. Some of our blunders I can understand, but there are a few moves FC Cincinnati made this year that just baffle me to no end. I’d love to read a round-table article where the CST staff answers this question:
What’s the one unforgivable mistake that FC Cincinnati made this season?
Thanks as always – you make my Tuesday drive time much more bearable.
Thanks for the email Doc, If you listen each week you know that we have been optimistic at times and yelled and pointed fingers at other moments. I think the time for most of that has passed as coaches and players have changed. To answer your question, I believe the Kekuta Manneh deal was the biggest blunder of the season. FC Cincinnati gave their rivals the Columbus Crew $300,000 in roster money (GAM & TAM) for a player they didn’t even own. The Crew still had old rights to him because he left the league. That move looks like such a bust now and I know you can point to other poor decisions but giving the Crew all that money never sat well with me. FCC thought they were getting a pacey player but I just have not seen the talent and speed that we thought we were getting. I hope that is a deal they can shed despite his young age (24). On the positive side, FC Cincinnati would actually owe Columbus more if he achieved performance goals this season. I think it is safe to say those bonus thresholds will not be met.
Pretty simple answer for me. The biggest blunder when looking back was not having an actual soccer GM in place before the expansion draft. By not having this in place, soccer decisions had no “one” person making final decisions. Jeff Berding may have signed off on them but even he admitted he was not a soccer guy so he had to trust people below. When acquiring players there needs to be a “definitive” leader and we learned at the time of the Alan Koch firing that it was not the case. This led to poor player selection in the expansion draft and expensive player acquisition.
If you want the one specific mistake I felt was big, the entire expansion draft was a mess, but, drafting Hassan Ndam was the biggest mistake. Ndam has potential and may pan out but you don’t draft potential in an expansion draft. The expansion draft is the moment a team can draft experience or gain additional assets(xAM) for picking players for other teams. Expansion picks may not be full-time starters but any player selected should be able to get 500+ minutes during the season. FCC selected two players that reached that threshold and both were highly expensive. Personally I would have liked inexpensive picks that had enough experience to contribute and use the money saved to acquire better talent at the top. In the end, it is spilled milk and Gerard Nijkamp, Ron Jans, and Luke Sassano must try and navigate the club back in a positive direction.
I think my answer for this is similar to Ken’s but I’ll go a step further. Prior to this season even beginning, our biggest blunder was not having a GM and coach in place, specifically for the start of MLS. Jeff Berding to his credit after Alan Koch was let go stated he was not a soccer guy but handled the business side of the club pretty well given what the club has accomplished in the 4 years as an organization. While it was an idea at the time that Koch would lead the squad into this season, I believe the search for a proven coach at the highest level should have started the day of our announcement. At the time, FC Cincinnati generated a lot of positive notoriety and was an attractive commodity to coaches looking to really stand out. On top of that (even though our timeline would have been the same), that coach would have looked to instill a system during the offseason which could have translated on the pitch. I believe the offseason acquisitions would have been significantly different especially from an expansion draft perspective in bolstering the attack and maybe bringing up less of the USL guys. If we look at the expansion draft in hindsight and production on the field, it has not been productive. Ndam hasn’t played a single match for the club. Alexander is not on the team via trade mid-season. Kamara was traded for an international spot. Roland Lamah and Darren Mattocks have not lived up to expectations. I am more hopeful as Ron, Gerard and Luke work together for 2020 and 2021 when the team plays in the beautiful West End Stadium but had we had this front office management at the end of the USL season last year, things might be a bit different.
The one unforgivable mistake this club made wasn’t this season. It actually occurred in May 2018 when they foolishly gave Alan Koch the keys to the MLS car. The warning signs were there back in 2017 when his side was absolutely awful in USL play but no one seemed to care because of the deep U.S. Open Cup run. Then once again in 2018 the warning signs were ignored when Koch had the best roster money could buy in USL and still couldn’t manage to win a playoff game. The moment that decision occurred was the moment 2019 became a failure.
I’m along the same lines as everyone so far…not having a staff in place that knew how to navigate the MLS waters…having JB and Koch make soccer decisions derailed this club this season and possibly next season due to the amount of money spent. Having a GM in place before the end of last season would have given FCC a better position in terms of acquiring players via the expansion draft, trades, etc. From the get-go, dating back to last season this build-up was a complete and undeniable disaster.
For me, the biggest blunder that FCC made this season was that it didn’t manage the relationship it had with its fans. Early on, the club was talking about the financials of the stadium and how the club would be handicapped in its first two seasons without the stadium finances to support the roster build. However, when the day of the announcement came and Cincinnati joined MLS, the tone changed to “we’re going for it.” This set unrealistic expectations with the fans. It’s not as exciting but making the team and fans understand that we were focused on a slow sustainable build based on the academy and homegrown players with a gradual build-up of designated players would have been a better message. With the results on the pitch being poor, the club needed to turn things around and focus on making the fans feel more connected to the team. MLS creates barriers that challenge that but without a personal connection to the players, the only thing drawing fans into the stands is performance. Attendance numbers are holding for now, but the club didn’t sell out Columbus and by the 80th minute of most games, the stands are vacant. Season tickets are not renewing as expected. The club is in a win or die scenario because the fans aren’t connected to this team. FCC has held some fan events but huge numbers of people and tables with lines of people getting autographs aren’t forming a connection. At away games, there are fans who travel. How often does the team come over and acknowledge them? In St. Louis, the opposing team spent more time with our fans and the fans were at field level. Columbus gathers by their supporters every game and thanks them for being there. Cincinnati players scatter around Nippert, do a circle and give a golf clap to fans. Understandably they’ve lost the game and are dealing with that, but it’s about the level of connection being made. The supporter groups are there. Give them more than an individual passing clap on the way to the locker room. There are of course exceptions. I’ve seen Emmanuel Ledesma walk straight to the “wall” after a game and start interacting with fans one on one. Fans love Ledesma and feel connected to him. I know this isn’t easy to accomplish with the MLS CBA in place, but it’s time for the club to spend some money getting players out in front of fans on a more personal level. TV, radio, podcast interviews. Small venues like fundraisers. Let some players give away their jersey after a game. Get them out to the “wall” ASAP. Anything that can be done to create one on one interactions with fans.