Despite indicating otherwise over the summer, it’s unlikely that FC Cincinnati will sign another Designated Player before they begin MLS play next year.
FCC president and GM Jeff Berding and technical director Luke Sassano told MLSsoccer.com shortly after Cincinnati acquired DP striker Fanendo Adi from Portland in July that the incoming expansion club intended to sign at least one more DP before they moved into MLS in 2019.
Sassano and head coach Alan Koch walked that back last week. The duo told MLSsoccer.com that it’s unlikely that Cincinnati, who set the USL regular season points record before being bounced by New York Red Bulls II in the second-round of the USL Cup Playoffs on Oct. 28, will sign another DP this winter. It was recently reported by Yahoo Sports that Cincinnati were close to a deal to sign US international Fabian Johnson to a DP deal this summer before talks fell through.
“At this stage, I’d say probably not,” Koch said. “We’ve put a lot of work into building something and I think our club philosophy is to be as fiscally responsible as possible. We do go case by case, of course, and we know we’ve got a lot of business ahead of us, but if you’re asking me right now, I’d say probably not, no.”
“As a club we’re always open to seeing what type of players would be available for the winter. But we also understand that when you do sign a DP, there has to be a certain amount of research and timing that goes into it when you’re talking about that kind of investment,” added Sassano. “So, I wouldn’t anticipate that we’re going to bring another one this winter. We’ve had a lot of great conversations, there’s always possibilities, but I would agree with Alan’s sentiment.”
The new tack is part of a broader strategy that will emphasize continuity and cohesion over big splashes in the transfer market. Sassano and Koch said that Cincinnati expect to bring “eight to 10” players from their 2018 USL roster with them to MLS next season. That number includes Adi and Fatai Alashe, who was acquired in a trade with the San Jose Earthquakes on the same day of the Adi deal. The club also has an option to permanently acquire left back Pa Konate, who was acquired on loan from Serie A club SPAL in August and has experience in the UEFA Champions League and with the Swedish national team.
Even if those three are excluded from the count, however, that projected number is higher than what Minnesota and Orlando brought with them during their recent transitions from the lower divisions to MLS. Other players who will reportedly move with FCC to MLS include midfielders Emmanuel Ledesma, Jimmy McLaughlin and Corben Bone as well as defender Forrest Lasso.
Koch and Sassano know they’ll have to add talent above their USL holdovers, several of whom Koch said are already signed to MLS deals that the club is waiting to announce, but they’re hopeful that the group will provide stability on and off the field during what will be a hectic transition into MLS.
“We know we have to bring in better players that will come in to make us better as a group. For us to be successful in MLS, we have to be significantly better than we were this year and that’s why we’ve worked so hard to bring in the right players,” said Koch. “But I think it’s important to maintain the culture. I think the last two years we’ve really grown something very special here, and I think it’d be pretty disrespectful just to brush that aside. So, we will keep a small core so we can continue to build on the mentality and the understanding of the philosophy.”
It’s unlikely they’ll shell out huge cash for any signings this winter, but Cincinnati certainly aren’t putting any geographic restrictions on their talent search. The club have one of the bigger scouting staffs in MLS, and Sassano, Koch and their deputies have been racking up the frequent flyer miles for the past few weeks. Koch returned from a week-long trip to Europe last Thursday and headed out on another international trip on Monday; head of scouting Jorge Alvial, formerly of Atlanta United, Sporting KC, Chelsea and, most recently, Manchester United, was just in South America; Sassano hit several different continents during the USL season and confirmed that the club continues to look in Germany for new signings.
Cincinnati plan to end up with around 25 players on their season-opening roster, and they’d like to have about 90 percent of their squad secured by the time preseason opens in late January. Sassano anticipates that the club will have “full function” of the $2.8 million in discretionary Targeted Allocation Money allowed to each MLS club in addition to the $1.2 million in mandatory TAM given to each team.
They’re also talking with other MLS clubs about trades ahead of the Dec. 11 Expansion Draft, in which they’ll make five picks from the unprotected lists of the 18 MLS clubs who will participate in the draft. Sassano said FCC are considering promising teams they won’t select any of their players in the Expansion Draft as part of the compensation package in any potential trades.
Cincinnati have also hired several liaisons to help onboard players, an area that has been a problem for past expansion teams. With 14-16 new players likely coming to the club this winter, FCC want to make their transition to Ohio as smooth as possible so that they can worry less about getting settled off the field and focus more on coming together on it.
“We’re trying to be on the cusp of doing things a little bit differently and trying to maximize our resources,” Sassano said. “I think going through that whole process this year opened our eyes to what type of player we would bring to Cincinnati and how clever we would have to be to find, source and then sign those players.”
With the club unlikely to sign any new big guns this winter, things like effective onboarding and finding good value in the transfer market will be particularly important for FCC. The margins are slim for MLS teams that don’t spend in the top tier. They’re slimmer still for expansion teams that don’t shell out major cash. Cincinnati know that, and they’re looking ahead to 2019 accordingly.
“I think we have to be realistic. I think this year we’ve come in and flexed our muscles a little bit in the USL. I think we’ve grown and we will continue to grow, but we’ll be the new kids on the block next year with a very fiscally sound budget,” Koch said. “This is not a sprint, this is a marathon. We want to be as competitive as we can out of the gate, and like every team, our goal should be to make the playoffs. But we need to be very realistic as we continue to build this. You go one game at a time, you give it your best shot and you see how the cards fall into place.”