FC Cincinnati technical director Luke Sassano offered a glimpse into the club’s roster plans for their inaugural MLS season on Thursday, telling MLSsoccer.com in a phone interview that the club expects to have at least one Designated Player on the books next year.
Sassano said that Cincinnati are aiming to sign their first DP either in time for the start of the 2019 season or in next summer’s transfer window. He said a second Designated Player could also be signed in 2019, and that a third DP, most likely a Young DP, would probably follow, perhaps in 2020.
“It’s very fair to say that we’re looking at bringing a DP in to start the season,” Sassano said. “We’re looking at the potential of either that DP joining us in the summer or that DP plus potentially another DP joining us in the summer. It’s just more respective of what type of player fits into those characteristics.”
It was announced last month that Cincinnati will join MLS in 2019. The reveal kickstarted a tricky balancing act for the first-place USL club, who are attempting to juggle their push for a second-division title with the significant work involved with their upcoming move to MLS.
Sassano is managing most of the efforts on the sporting side of the operation. Just like his new club, the 32-year-old former New York Red Bulls and Sporting KC defender is adjusting to a new role on the fly. He only joined FCC in March, signing on after spending the previous five years working under current Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese on the technical staff of the NASL’s New York Cosmos. He and his wife are actually still in the process of moving to Cincinnati from the New York area, with Sassano currently commuting back and forth between the cities when he’s not on the road scouting.
He’s got quite the gig on his hands. Sassano is working through the regular demands of a USL season while simultaneously planning for FCC’s inaugural MLS roster, a job that’s taken on added urgency since last month’s expansion announcement. The reveal led to an explosion of attention for FCC, whom Sassano said have since been approached by agents representing “hundreds” of players expressing interest in joining the club. He said some of those players would be DP-level signings, though he added that Cincinnati aren’t currently in any serious conversations with any potential DPs and don’t expect to sign one this summer.
Sassano, who traveled to France the day after Cincinnati’s expansion announcement to scout the prestigious Toulon youth international tournament, also discussed where FCC will search for their DPs. He mentioned Germany, Mexico, Argentina and England as potential target areas, citing Cincinnati’s history of German heritage as a factor in the club’s search.
While there are plenty of excellent players in both Germany and England, it’s worth noting that MLS teams often have trouble finding good value in both countries. Clubs can often get better bang for their buck when plucking players out of Central and South America than they can on European signings.
That’s an important consideration in a league with the salary restrictions of MLS, particularly since Cincinnati, who have traditionally been near the top of the USL in payroll, won’t be in the top-tier of spenders next season. Sassano said FCC will be in the middle of the pack in roster spend, falling in between recent expansion teams like Atlanta and LAFC, two of the biggest spenders in all of MLS, and second-year club Minnesota, who didn’t have a DP during their inaugural campaign.
“I think we’ll be comfortably more in the middle rather than going one way or the other,” he said. “But we also, again, we have the flexibility and the support from our ownership group and obviously coming from Jeff [Berding], our president, that it also a balance to have the right player. So, if a right opportunity comes along that fits us and what we’re trying to do, that’s always going to be a part of the conversation.”
While he doesn’t expect to sign a DP this summer, Sassano said Cincinnati would like to sign one or two players over the next couple of months. The potential additions could either join their USL squad and work for a place on their 2019 MLS roster or directly sign an MLS deal and then go on loan until the start of next preseason.
Some players on their current roster will also likely make the leap from USL to MLS next year. FCC haven’t contractually guaranteed anyone a spot in MLS, but Sassano hinted that certain players on the squad were signed with the idea of bringing them into the top flight. Midfielder Namzi Albadawi might be in that group. The 26-year-old was signed to a multi-year contract this offseason from North Carolina FC after back-to-back NASL Best XI honors. Both Albadawi and head coach Alan Koch referenced Albadawi being an important part of FCC’s long-term plans in the club’s announcement of his signing in January. Former MLS players Michael Lahoud and Corben Bone are two more candidates to make the jump.
“There’s certain guys that have different types of contract parameters that I really can’t get into, but I will say that, obviously, when you bring in players that are a little bit higher level and higher paid and that type of mentality, there are certain ideas about next steps,” Sassano said. “I will say that even guys that aren’t the higher paid guys on our team, we’re still considering for sure to be a part of the MLS team, because they offer diff things. It’s all a balance.”