As the 2021 MLS season draws to a close, clubs trickle over the line of being mathematically eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Though games remain, focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
There was a new stadium! And new players! And new hope!
… but soon there would be a new general manager. And there will be a new coach. The fourth in as many seasons. FC Cincinnati are embarking on another rebuild. All they have left to play for in 2021 is trying to not finish bottom of MLS for the third consecutive year – all three of their years in the league.
Players will be playing for their futures or their next contract, be it in Cincy or elsewhere, as new GM Chris Albright embarks on a coaching search and puts in motion his plan to revive this club.
FC Cincinnati haven't been short on ambition, earmarked by TQL Stadium, opulent transfers and fan support. They have been short on execution, patience and consistency. Hope springs eternal, though, with new leadership and a new plan.
Now on their third chief soccer officer, Cincy’s hiring of the long-time Philadelphia Union No. 2 was met with widespread approval across the league. Albright has been a long-respected front office executive, playing a key part in the Union’s surge in recent years with Ernst Tanner as sporting director.
First up is the coaching search. Here’s what Albright told MLSsoccer.com several weeks ago:
"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... it’s certainly priority No. 1. There are a lot of good candidates out there.”
Then Albright, his staff and the new coach will identify which players should stick around and where they can free up assets, then begin upgrading the roster. Another quote from that interview particularly stuck out to me as interesting.
“Identifying talent and building a team are two totally different things,” Albright said. “That’s the challenge. To build a team.”
Albright was also quick to note a few times that some players Cincy signed "just wouldn't have been possible" in Philadelphia, in regards to transfer spend. Brenner was signed for $13 million, Issac Atanga for a reported $4 million, Luciano Acosta for more than $3 million plus a bunch of allocation money for his MLS rights. Yuya Kubo was reportedly in the region of $2-3 million. The previous regime negotiated a purchase clause in a loan for Jurgen Locadia that was set at $10 million, a figure they would have triggered if the performances were there.
Money is there to spend. It's just about spending it wisely. Albright and Philly's reputation was maximizing every dollar spent over the last few years. Now he'll get a chance to do it on a larger scale.
Quietly, because Cincy haven’t been picking up points nor rolling together shutouts, Geoff Cameron has been a solid addition. He hasn’t saved the defense, and it wasn’t very hard to be an improvement given the starting point, but still. The 36-year-old former US international proved he's still got quality performances left in his legs.
Will he be a first-choice center back next year, though? They assuredly are in need of a new goalkeeper and defensive midfielders – plural. Kamohelo Mokotjo, a TAM-signing defensive midfielder in the summer of 2020, has played exactly 433 minutes so far this year. There wasn’t a clear backup if that signing went wrong, as it did. Cameron seems to be the only definite center back returning, so pending other moves, a couple central defenders are likely to be signed.
In short: A lot.
Gustavo Vallecilla, a U22 Initiative center back, was on loan in 2021 and the club's official release made no mention of a purchase option, though you'd assume one would have been included in the deal. Regardless, that's an early decision for the front office. Vallecilla showed moments in his debut season in MLS. Depending on the number, or if Cincy and Ecuadorian Serie A side Aucas can renegotiate any potential transfer option, Vallecilla may be back. Or if he departs, Cincy would have another U22 Initiative slot open.
This is the most difficult question to answer. While there are a number of intriguing pieces to build on, there have been a lot of mistakes in the first three years of Cincy’s roster building. There has been a lot of allocation money spent, too, though we don’t know exactly how much they have at their disposal.
Acosta is a centerpiece. The young talented players like Brenner, Vallecilla, Atanga and Alvaro Barreal may all look much different in a more competent team. If they can open a DP spot that’d be very useful. And maybe some MLS experienced players to go along with an MLS experienced coach, fostering a real culture and core for the first time in the club's brief MLS history.
The LA Galaxy weren't quite as low as this last year, but Greg Vanney came in, they overhauled the roster and now they're pacing for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in 2021. These things aren't easy, but they do happen. With so much parity in MLS, things can change quickly. A step forward would be a competitive season that isn’t essentially over by mid-summer. That's an attainable goal.
How many of the players above will be back in 2022?