It was a difficult MLS expansion season for FC Cincinnati, one that got off to a rocky start and prompted the club to make swift changes. In came Gerard Nijkamp by the end of May, off an impressive seven-year stint with PEC Zwolle in the Netherlands, to put the team back on track as general manager.
Entering after all first-team contracts for 2019 had been signed a few months prior, Nijkamp hasn't yet been able to make sweeping changes. This offseason has hinted at similar tight spaces to work with, considering the club still has 22 players under contract after announcing their end-of-season roster update, parting ways with the likes of Roland Lamah and Victor Ulloa.
The news turned heads a bit, with many expecting a transitional offseason in Ohio following a 6-22-6 finish (31 points). That can still be the case, according to Nijkamp.
“I see it more as a realistic and normal situation, it happens at a lot of clubs," Nijkamp told MLSsoccer.com last week. "When you have guaranteed contracts, you have to respect these contracts. … It’s a normal process. We know we’re not going to change everything in one season, it takes more years. To come into the new stadium, we’ll create more revenue, so we’ll be able to increase budget.”
That's not to say there won't be a number of changes this offseason. As currently constituted, Nijkamp forecasts as many as five new additions to Cincy this winter, perhaps more if some current players join new clubs. They're also keeping an eye on moving into their new stadium in 2021.
“You’re always limited, eh? You’d always want more money to improve the roster," Nijkamp said. "That’s a good thing, though, or the job would be too easy. There is enough room for improvement from the players we have under contract and the players we have to find. From this moment, we can identify around five players, and if there are players we have that will move or make a transfer, we can have more changes. But at this moment, that’s the situation with the roster we have.”
Nijkamp added the club needs more quality in attack and another player or two in defense.
That recruitment process is well underway. Nijkamp just returned from a trip to Europe, alongside team president Jeff Berding, in which Nijkamp did some scouting and had meetings with agents and clubs.
“My network is strong in Europe," Nijkamp said. "The agents I talk with, the clubs I speak with, it helps FC Cincinnati a lot to find good players. I know also the club has a good network in South and Central America, we have to use that also. I want to find the next Allan Cruz. He came from Costa Rica; it’s an interesting market. My European network, the scouting department’s network, will help us a lot.”
But Nijkamp doesn't want to simply get caught up in potential acquisitions. There are a few bright spots, despite the team's disappointing inaugural campaign, particularly Cruz.
A highly-rated 23-year-old Costa Rican international, Cruz contributed seven goals over 22 appearances in his first season. In front of him, No. 1 overall 2019 MLS SuperDraft pick Frankie Amaya made 19 appearances in his first professional campaign, a non-insignificant amount of experience for a player who turned 19 last month.
“From the moment I saw the team playing, my analysis was that there are good players and it’s not a surprise I point to Allan Cruz," Nijkamp said. "It was a great signing from management before I came here. We’re happy he made improvements and he’s on our team. Frankie Amaya got a lot of experience to show his potential. Hopefully next season with some better players around him he’ll make the next step in his career. They’re young players, Allan and Frankie, giving a good future for this club.”
Head coach Ron Jans will get a full preseason with his new team and will hope to build on some improvements he ushered in, particularly in defense. Cincy had three clean sheets in their final five matches, which were their first since March.
As for other players still on the roster, it was a rocky first season with Designated Player Fanendo Adi. He scored just one goal in minimal minutes as injuries and occurrences off the field limited his availability. The forward has been public with his frustrations and the club is open to the possibility of moving him on, suggesting a divorce may be best for both parties.
“There’s no update, still the same situation," Nijkamp said. "He has a guaranteed contract. If there’s a club he likes and we like, we can sit together. If not, Fanendo will be here in January.”
Is that a realistic possibility?
"It’s difficult. If I could see the future then I’d be a multi-millionaire, but I’d still be in football," Nijkamp said with a laugh, before continuing his answer. "But I cannot see the future. Let’s see what happens over the next couple of weeks and months. We’ll make the right decisions for every party.”
One thing's for sure: It'll be an interesting offseason in the Queen City as Nijkamp continues to make this squad his own.