To be honest this article was originally meant as a referendum on Gerard Nijkamp’s tenure as FC Cincinnati’s general manager. However, he and the club parted ways shortly after FC Cincinnati’s 2021 summer transfer window came to a close last week. A new general manager will now be tasked with picking up the pieces and deciding which players will be a part of the foundation moving forward.
The road will not be easy for the new general manager. In addition to the signings of midfielder Florian Valot and defender Tyler Blackett, Nijkamp brought in 14 players over the last year, not including draft picks or homegrown signings. The roster budget is near its max with the majority of impact positions (designated player, U22, targeted allocation money) already filled.
Looking ahead to the 2022 winter transfer window will be critical, as it will provide the first real opportunity for the new GM to add to the squad. I wanted to take a look at what opportunities may be available for the new leader.
After the season we are likely to see several players’ tenures come to an end in Orange & Blue. We are likely to see the exit of veterans Haris Medunjanin, Przemysław Tytoń, Edgar Castillo and Maikel van der Werff. Also likely is the departure of backup goalkeeper Cody Cropper and potentially Ben Lundt. That would leave the Senior Roster at 16/17 players depending on Kenneth Vermeer’s 2022 status, with seven of eight international spots filled if Calvin Harris receives a green card this offseason.
Other names on the chopping block could include Nick Hagglund, Brandon Vazquez, Caleb Stanko, Ben Mines and Zico Bailey. I tend to think Vazquez, Hagglund and Stanko will be retained as their budget charge and domestic status make them valuable pieces. No roster in MLS is perfect, and they all have the quality to contribute to the matchday roster. To me, Mines and Bailey are both up in the air. Neither has contributed much this season, but if they can retain their homegrown status on the supplemental roster, it makes sense to keep them around. If either has to be moved to a senior spot, I’d shake their hand and book an Uber to the airport.
Here is an early crack at the 2022 Senior roster with recommended changes.
Where to go from here?
At first look, FC Cincinnati has at least three open senior spots and likely an international spot or two depending on U.S. Green Cards. FC Cincinnati should pick up Gustavo Vallecilla’s purchase option this offseason and register him as a U-22 player, limiting his budget charge. The biggest issue the new GM will have is how to fit the large salaries of Kamohelo Mokotjo, Allan Cruz, Yuya Kubo and Geoff Cameron on the roster while still bringing in a new DP. That designated player would eat up $612,500 in cap space but could be bought down slightly below that with more general allocation money. If the four above players remain, FC Cincinnati has the room to bring in a new DP and potentially another senior roster signing (approx: $200k-$300k) to stay under the cap. With long term needs at right back, wing and defensive midfield, there isn’t much room to improve the squad unless the club uses their one off-season roster buy out.
The Elephant in the Room
The key to the rebuild next season will likely be the decision to buy out Mokotjo. It’s been rumored that nagging injuries have kept him off the pitch for the majority of this season. That is interesting as he is normally in the matchday squad leading to the belief that something more might be up between him and coach Jaap Stam. With his salary over $1 million per season, his salary does not match the production required out of that roster spot. If FC Cincinnati were to exercise the buyout, the new GM could bring in three, maybe four pieces mixed from abroad and within the league.
So what does 2022 look like?
Unfortunately, Nijkamp put the club into this corner and leaves his successor with few straightforward swings to get out. Is there one DP who can bring everything together to make it work like Nani in Orlando? I doubt it. Will another depth signing or two make a difference? Probably not. Will the ownership group want to buy out another million dollar player? Might have to.
While FC Cincinnati fans may expect to see another active transfer window, it won’t be easy for the new general manager. FC Cincinnati spent big the last three windows with minor on-field success. Doling out large contracts to Kubo and Cruz makes them nearly untradeable. Blackett and Cameron are both likely on large cap hits at center back, and all three U-22 spots should be filled, limiting impact signings. While Blackett is an attractive piece, his signing took up a large chunk of money that could have been used by the new GM. Luckily his first option ends in summer 2022, making an exit likely if it doesn’t work out.
The first move FC Cincinnati has to make if they want to contend for a playoff spot in 2022 is to cut ties with Mokotjo. If he leaves, it allows FC Cincinnati to go out and get another borderline TAM/high GAM level signing from abroad. Along with a new DP this would give the general manager two impact players to add to FC Cincinnati’s core.
The next thing to do is to hit the MLS free agency market and sign at least one proven MLS veteran who could come in to start. I don’t think the club has enough GAM and cap space to go get a player in the profile of a Dax McCarty, but with increased eligibility for free agency negotiated in the latest collective bargaining agreement, there should be more players available this offseason to pick up.
Any further moves will require the new GM to get really creative, and I don’t see an easy way of doing it. There is little cap space available for another interleague trade. The two likeliest exits would be either Cruz or Kubo. Both are reportedly on contracts through 2022, so any departures would likely be out of the league. Both players are still in their mid to late 20s and could have value. I’d think the most likely departure would have to be Cruz. If he can have a strong World Cup qualifying cycle this fall, he could increase some value that would make teams take on his contract.
In the end, like it or not, the new general manager will have to come in with a plan to incorporate a lot of pieces already here. Nijkamp left the club with little roster flexibility and only one clear impact move available.
Will the club go with someone familiar with MLS roster rules to pick up the pieces, or will they turn to another international option who’d likely have to learn on the job? Time will tell, but I think FC Cincinnati no longer has the capital built up in the fanbase to endure another roster rebuild that would require “four to five transfer windows”.