Long regarded as one of the top front-office No. 2's in league circles, Chris Albright is getting his first crack at running point at an MLS club. Albright was named FC Cincinnati general manager this week, appointed after a successful run as technical director with the Philadelphia Union since 2014.
To some, Albright has long been ready for a shot as chief soccer officer for an MLS club and his move to Cincy is overdue. The man himself, though, is perfectly happy how things played out.
"I was never a self-promoter that way," Albright told MLSsoccer.com. "I was confident that if I did my job, if we continued to have success, that the right opportunity would come calling. To be honest, I kind of landed in a dream scenario. Maybe if I put my name out there more, I’d be in a situation where I’m not as happy as I am today.”
On the field, Cincinnati have been far from a dream scenario over their first three years in the league. Albright is their third chief soccer officer in that time, while he will be conducting the search for their fourth full-time head coach. The club finished bottom of the league in both of their first two seasons and currently occupies last place this year with seven games left.
Off the field, though, there are several positives that explain why Albright holds the job in high esteem. Ownership has demonstrated a willingness to spend serious money, they opened TQL Stadium this year and the fans still come out in full voice despite the struggles.
“The one thing I’d say that’s easy for everybody to see is the infrastructure," Albright said. "World-class training facility, top of the league stadium and ambition. The willingness to spend money. As I got to meet Jeff [Berding], Carl [Lindner III], Meg [Whitman], the ownership group – the fit, values and welcoming nature of the people really sold it, frankly. Very much in line with who I am.”
To turn around the on-field product, first things first for Albright is the head coaching search. Cincinnati parted ways with Jaap Stam last week, meaning Albright will have a clean slate to begin building the club in his vision.
“I certainly have candidates in mind," Albright said. "I was very clear that domestic MLS experience is a non-negotiable prerequisite. Soon I’ll be able to land on the person who is the best fit here. The next couple weeks will form my thoughts on the process, but it’s certainly priority No. 1. There are a lot of good candidates out there.”
An obvious connection would be Union assistant Pat Noonan. The 41-year-old has been in coaching since his playing career ended, serving as an assistant under Bruce Arena at the LA Galaxy and the US men's national team before joining Jim Curtin's staff in Philly. He is a finalist for Real Salt Lake's coaching vacancy and is expected to be under consideration in Cincinnati.
“Pat’s getting calls [for head coaching jobs] in real-time," Albright said. "He’s an excellent coach, an incredible human being. He is a big part of why we were successful in Philadelphia. Pat is in every conversation around the league, frankly, and he should be because Pat’s a winner and an excellent coach.”
Once a coach is sorted, roster upheaval will come next.
Cincinnati, despite languishing bottom of the league and facing real danger of finishing dead last in each of their first three seasons, are not devoid of talent. Of the two big offseason additions, Luciano Acosta has rekindled some of the magic from his D.C. United days and reported $13 million acquisition Brenner has seven goals and two assists in his debut MLS season. Additionally, Geoff Cameron and Gustavo Vallecilla have the makings of a decent center back partnership, while U22 Initiative wingers Alvaro Barreal and Isaac Atanga arrived with high hopes.
Albright aims to borrow a few lessons learned in Philadelphia about team-building that sent one of the lowest-spending clubs in MLS on a consistent upward trajectory that culminated with a Supporters' Shield in 2020 and a place in this year's Concacaf Champions League semifinals.
“There are pieces here that, frankly, we wouldn’t have been able to sign in Philadelphia," Albright said. "The challenge is putting something on the field that’s identifiable and sustainable. Like, you know what four or five guys are going to give you every game. That’s what we did in Philadelphia, we were able to build a core. … The challenge here is to establish that core. Identifying talent and building a team are two totally different things. That’s the challenge. To build a team.”
It remains to be seen how much flexibility Albright and Cincy's front office can manufacture this winter. The club added 17 players this year and spent a solid amount of allocation money in trades for Ronald Matarrita and to acquire Acosta's rights. Though not all new signings are on multi-year guaranteed contracts, any full-blown rebuild might take a bit.
During Albright's time in Philly, their front office was known for maximizing every dollar and every opportunity. Curtin regularly pointed to Albright and sporting director Ernst Tanner as the best duo in MLS at extracting maximum value from their resources.
"With Chris, I've said it time and time again: He's the best at what he does in our league, in terms of navigating the cap, finding incredible talent for the team to use," Curtin said when reports broke that Albright was heading to Cincy. "He's as good as it gets."
Unsurprisingly for someone who helped oversee steady year-on-year development in Philly, Albright isn't making grandiose promises about when to expect huge improvements in Cincinnati. But he's confident that results will ultimately speak for themselves.
“There’s infrastructure in place here, and willingness and ambition, to go on and win trophies," Albright said. "But to sit here in last place in the Eastern Conference and start over-promising is not the way to approach it.”