National Writer: Charles Boehm

FC Cincinnati start over, again: Where do they go from here?

FC Cincinnati’s dismissal of Jaap Stam wasn’t surprising or sudden.

The Dutchman leaves southwest Ohio with an 8W-27L-12D record, and his colleague and countryman Gerard Nijkamp, their former general manager, was sent packing in early August. FCC have won just once since June.

It still does bear emphasizing, however, just how common this has become for this club, who practically from their inception have changed coaches with the speed of an overheated player stripping off sweat-soaked training gear.

Counting interim honchos like Tyrone Marshall, the newly-installed hot-seat occupant, FCC have now had as many head coaches (six) as they have seasons of existence. And that dates back to their pre-MLS days in the USL Championship when John Harkes was replaced by Alan Koch on short notice and with limited explanation.

Jaap Stam out, how does FC Cincinnati rebuild?

Few clubs in modern North American soccer history have climbed a trajectory as steep as Cincy’s, from bold concept in an unproven market to lower-division heavyweights to MLS new kids to big spenders/trendsetters in barely five years.

Unfortunately they’ve gotten all too many technical decisions wrong since they reached the top flight in 2019, which is all too common in the annals of expansion. Now they’re staring at yet another sweeping overhaul of their on-field operations as one unsuccessful rebuild handicaps the prospects of the next, and so on.

Club president Jeff Berding has repeatedly cited the idea that their rapid ascent handicapped their approach to becoming competitive at this level. A few weeks ago he told the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Pat Brennan that “our unprecedented quick turn into MLS has hamstrung us in a way that we certainly didn’t appreciate when we agreed to come in in 2019, and probably Gerard’s unfamiliarity with MLS. He probably didn’t appreciate the degree to which it would be hard to undo some of the changes, some of the decisions that were made prior.”

And now Nijkamp’s successor must untangle his past work in order to get their job done, too. Many of the bigger acquisitions made by Nijkamp haven’t lived up to expectations and some will remain on the books for another year or two thanks to the hefty contracts they signed.

But there’s more than just salary-budget math work to do here. A shift in mentality is needed around the FCC brain trust, who do not lack for ambition or willingness to spend money but have already made certain costly mistakes repeatedly.

A member of another MLS club's technical staff recently said something striking to me about Cincy: “The issue (well, one of them) is that they always want to hit a home run.”

I think that sums up one of FCC's most persistent issues pretty well. A club that pulled off the organizational equivalent of a moon shot to get to MLS seems to think that hauling themselves into the league’s upper echelon can be pulled off in a similar fashion. There’s a thin line between confidence and cockiness, and in a sense that’s amplified by their ownership’s spending power, which is certainly a blessing but not – as we now have ample evidence for – a golden ticket.

Given their short turnaround, it was understandable when Cincy carried over a big chunk of their USL roster to their 2019 expansion season. When that didn’t work out so well, the steps taken to upgrade their talent – including the arrival of Stam, as well as the likes of Fanendo Adi, Yuya Kubo, Jurgen Locadia and most recently their reported $13 million striker Brenner – have not lacked for aggression. But as much as fans may dig the long ball, swinging for the fences tends to lead to more strikeouts, and FCC have had enough whiffs to keep a packed TQL Stadium cool on a hot summer afternoon.

To carry this baseball analogy one step further, it’s probably time for the Orange & Blue to play some small ball.

Pick substance over style, flexibility over flexing, quiet cleverness over dramatic displays of intent. Think less about splashing cash and more about stretching every dollar. Stop dreaming about a dramatic year-over-year turnaround and accept that the next year or two will be an uphill battle with those clunkier contracts in place.

It’s not impossible to turn things around quickly in MLS, nor does it require huge financial outlays. Just look at D.C. United and CF Montréal, for example, who currently occupy the Eastern Conference’s final two postseason slots, 17 points ahead of Cincinnati with much less expensive roster budgets. But you need the right combination of mentalities and personalities, especially when it comes to working with what you have rather than fishing around for something new.

The buzz around their GM hire suggests that this lightbulb may be clicking on. ESPN’s Taylor Twellman reports that Cincy officially offered the position to someone on Friday, with longtime Philadelphia Union executive Chris Albright – who I expect to take either the FCC job or the similar opening at the San Jose Earthquakes very soon – said to be a leading candidate.

Like D.C.'s and Montréal's, FCC could stand to benefit from key aspects of the Union’s model. None of these are particularly “sexy” role models, for lack of a better word. But they are what’s needed along the shores of the Ohio River right now.