I have been trying to ponder the man or woman who will be taking up the new “head of football” role now that Gerard Nijkamp is no longer the general manager at FC Cincinnati. The world of football is unique. There is no set way for operating, and that means many pathways for club president Jeff Berding and owners Carl Linder III and Meg Whitman along with consultants or firms that they hire to pick the next savior, leader or next favorite #OUT villain.
In an interview with Pat Brennan of the Enquirer, Berding said MLS experience would be a priority. I believe after seeing the success of Nashville along with Nijkamp’s difficulty navigating the MLS budget process, that experience would be a sound bet to right the Orange & Blue ship.
Berding also mentioned in the article that FCC would “find the right person and we will do it as quickly as possible.” According to a source in the club, it is believed this will be a fast process that will allow the new general manager-type role to evaluate the current football staff and roster.
To be fair to Nijkamp, he had to build a football organization from very little. The Dutchman had a Herculean task of launching an academy, hiring numerous staff, outlining common operations, learning how to navigate a league with unique rules and rebuilding a roster effectively twice (once his fault, once not). He succeeded in some of those areas while failing massively in others. Credit to him, this is a significantly different job that he took on and one I believe should be attractive to many candidates.
Berding mentioned several pillars of success for the organization during his press conference. I will co-opt his term to outline areas I believe can be used to evaluate general manager candidates.
Success on the field: No ifs, ands or buts, FCC just told every applicant that you must win and win fast. The applicants will all have to come from an organization that is currently winning or has been a “winner” for a large part of the last five-plus seasons. I do love how Nijkamp stressed how he was able to “stretch a buck” due to his time at PEC Zwolle, but let’s not act like they were consistently at the top of the table in the Eredivisie. FC Cincinnati needs a proven formula for success with this hire. We need a winner.
Transfer track record: I could even go about breaking this into two additional categories: Efficient Spend and Big Money Spend. To be blunt, this GM will have to make somewhere between two to four splash moves this winter window. That doesn’t necessarily mean only inflows. The GM will have to potentially move some high-dollar players to get flexibility back into the roster budget. A substantial successful transfer history or league knowledge of designated player negotiations, domestic signings and U-23 players must be shown.
Coaching and football operation staff hires: This was not necessarily mentioned by Berding due to his commitment and support of coach Jaap Stam on Friday, but I would make a substantial bet that there will be a new coach on the touchline next season. I want to see the track record of input on any coaching hires or diversity among jobs where the “head of football” worked with different coaches. I would prefer that a GM and a coach have some relationship prior to FCC. We have seen the opposite fail miserably in places such as Atlanta and Miami, where big-name coaches come in and immediately feud with the front office. Working with a diverse set of staff and tenure with those people leading to winning is a great formula to get quick results in a league based on parity.
League experience: As I mentioned above, this is a tough league to walk into without a large depth of knowledge. No doubt this will change over time as FC Cincinnati cultivates and develops an operational chart that assists the GM, but right now the club needs someone who can walk in and be an expert of the language that is MLS. While tenure is all well and good, I do think having knowledge of many different philosophies will make the next GM well-rounded. Does this person need to have worked at five MLS clubs? No. I’d be just as happy with a person who has worked in several international clubs but also has that depth of experience/time to know MLS. The downfall of Nijkamp was his MLS roster budget mechanism usage. The club can’t continue to overpay for average players and needs to have someone who can maximize the budget with an ownership group that is willing to be a top five spender.
Relationships: This person will need to bring in seasoned MLS staff, coaches and players if the club truly wants to turn this thing around. Having spent time with U.S. Soccer, the MLS league office or time as an MLS player or staff member will help convince people to join the FC Cincinnati project. Let’s face it, FCC has a bad rap out there in league circles and will need some reliable, quality people in-house to jump-start success. Look at Seattle. It is a who’s-who of successful pros and league vets. Many of the standard-bearers in MLS have diverse and well-known people leading them. The club needs someone who will convince the top coaches, staff members and future GMs to join Cincinnati.
Look in the mirror
FC Cincinnati must evaluate what type of club it wants to be in the future. Does FCC continue to spend big on the international market, will the academy system be the bread and butter, or will there be a hybrid model? Will FC Cincinnati target players with a decent track record in MLS such as Geoff Cameron and Luciano Acosta, or will it chose to spend a fortune every three or four years on the next Wunderkind like Brenner?
I do believe that the league is on a precipice of a fundamental shift. Having a solid academy will be important, but as the rate of spend climbs, so will the need to deal in the international market. Will this club try to succeed with flashy signings like Atlanta and Los Angeles FC, or will they look like Sporting Kansas City or Philadelphia mixing youth, league experience and proven international players?
GM organization ‘types’
Organizational charts in MLS clubs are unique. No two are alike, but there are some common organizational structure themes.
Coach as GM/technical director with a strong “underling”: This was a common organizational structure in the MLS 2.0 era but does still have some place in today’s game. Peter Vermes (Sporting Kansas City) and Bruce Arena (New England) stand out as successful current heads of football while being the coach. Outside of Gregg Berhalter in Columbus prior to his time with the U.S. men’s national team, this method of leadership is dying out. There is simply so much going on now for this role that should you allow your coach to be GM, you absolutely must have an ace second in command. Vermes is paired with Brian Bliss, while Arena has Curt Onalfo. Not saying that this can’t be done, but those who want the coach to ultimately call the first-team and clubs personnel shots need to understand that it takes a special person and second GM type to really be successful.
Strong GM: I would classify this is as what Nijkamp was. He was the de facto leader at FCC next to Berding. This type, along with the one below, can be very similar, and ultimately I hope they are. The club needs a strong head of soccer with a pattern of success but also someone who has relationships to bring in capable people with MLS experience underneath him. In this organization, there is a clear head where all departments (technical staff, roster-budget, academy, scouting, etc.) report directly to. Whether a strong GM appoints an assistant, ultimately they have their hands in every pot actively.
VP/president of soccer operations and a GM: I view this similar to the partnership Garth Lagerwey and Craig Waibel have in Seattle or Dave Kasper and Lucy Rushton in D.C. There is so much going on in MLS right now including the addition of a reserve-team league, MLS Next academy system, an influx of high-profile players and more. It’s almost too much for one person to handle. Is it better that one person focuses on the macro and the other the micro? There is something to be said for setting a consistent philosophy of one person in the organization, but as a growing club and one with huge aspirations, why not go with two experienced leaders who are on the same page.
This is also the pot where I could potentially see a candidate from outside of MLS. Take André Zanotta in Dallas as an example. He has vast South American experience at Gremio and Santos but is partnered with Marco Ferruzzi, who has been with the club since 2004. Would you be comfortable bringing in an international VP/technical director if that person commits to working with an experienced MLS club or league office executive? I believe one of the downfalls Nijkamp had was not bringing someone with more league experience into his leadership circle.
Coach as GM: As previously mentioned above, this to me is a long shot. Berding wants to get a GM in sooner than later, and I don’t see anyone, including the likes of Vermes leaving his team prior to the playoffs. The best case would have been this move back in the summer or fall of 2020, luring Berhalter away from the USMNT, but even that would have been a difficult ask. I would love Vermes. I just don’t see him leaving the first-place team in the Western Conference mid-season.
Current GM: Let’s face it, everyone wants Lagerwey, but he isn’t coming to the Queen City any time soon. I could see several current MLS GMs/”head of football” come to FC Cincinnati. There are many clubs that do not have the facilities, budget, support of ownership and growth potential of FC Cincinnati. Could a GM of a club in the bottom of league spending like Houston’s Matt Jordan or Philadelphia’s Ernst Tanner think FCC is a better fit for their future goals? What about Elliot Fall in Salt Lake, who might be replaced when new ownership is installed? Surely a person with his pedigree of youth development would be attractive. Could Zanotta be fed up with trying to focus on pure development and sales of players and utilize his connections abroad to buy players. There are attractive options here.
Second in command: FCC fans are clamoring for experience, and while these people are not the de facto leaders of their clubs, they certainly have a significant pull. Many of us might recognize the name of Brian Bliss. The former Chicago and Columbus technical director has worked with Vermes to make Sporting KC a juggernaut. Another attractive name and one suggested by Matt Doyle is Will Kuntz. The second in command at Los Angeles FC has splashed some serious cash on the transfer market along with success luring MLS veterans. Curt Onalfo has partnered with Arena to turn the Revolution into a contender. Is he ready to lead an entire organization? The elephant in the room is former RSL GM and now sporting director of Seattle Craig Waibel. This would certainly give Cincy the credibility we crave, but can the club lure him from one of the best clubs in North America. I think most of this group, along with others not mentioned, are ready to take over the reins of an aspiring club. The question is, will they have the skill to navigate a quick roster retool?
League office: This is always a tricky pathway. FC Cincinnati is truly in a salary budget mess for this upcoming window. What better than getting someone who helps write the rules in MLS? There have been successful GMs with this experience like Tim Bezbatchenko (Toronto FC and Columbus), but also some huge failures like Nelson Rodrigues (Chivas and Chicago). It is difficult to really pinpoint names at MLS headquarters, but one name that jumped out to me was Alecko Eskandarian. Is he ready for a GM job? I’m not 100% sure, but I think he could make for an outstanding second in command. He brings a wealth of playing experience and has relationships in and around MLS and the USMNT program. There are many competent professionals in the league office that would bring a wealth of knowledge from Day One and could help repair the project.
Other: I am sure there will be one name floated out there that is a pure head-scratcher to us supporters. Could FCC decide to install a Moneyball mentality and grab a roster budget guru as GM? Does Jürgen Klinsmann stick his head out in his yearly quest to remain relevant and say he is worthy of a task? Could Stam throw his hat into the ring? What about Berhalter’s brother Jay? Heck, let’s poke our fingers in the eye of Columbus and sign Tim Bezbatchenko! I’m sure MLS headquarters or Sportsology may have a name or two in this pile, but I hope the club stays away from a “splash” move here.
I will be putting an additional piece together highlighting some of these names for further consideration. I do agree with Berding that FCC will have its pick of applicants. There are plenty of quality domestic options for Cincy, and the new GM needs to get started quickly to clean up another mess.