HOBOKEN, N.J. — After a few days of false hope that winter would retreat early in the greater New York City area, Mother Nature reminded us last weekend that it was, in fact, still February in northern New Jersey.
Though it was cold and harsh as February transitioned to March, it was not bleak. And as FC Cincinnati awaited their 2020 season debut against the New York Red Bulls on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, the weather offered a decent metaphor for the state of the club.
There were sunny days for Cincy this offseason, with a handful of expensive and exciting attacking players arriving at the club, headlined by 26-year-old striker Jurgen Locadia. But there were also some darker days as optimism swelled. Former head coach Ron Jans resigned in the wake of an investigation surrounding a complaint made by the MLS Players Association accusing Jans of making "extremely inappropriate comments" just 12 days prior to the club's season opener.
Cold and harsh, but not bleak. As the club moves forward, intent on significant improvement after 2019's expansion year resulted in a bottom-of-the-table finish, it's an attractive project, especially mindful of the club's soccer-specific stadium opening in 2021.
So, the search for Jans' successor is active and Cincy won't be short of choices, as was evident when the gig opened.
“After the press conference, directly I think I had 25 or 30 emails and texts," general manager Gerard Nijkamp told MLSsoccer.com. "A lot of coaches want to be head coach of FC Cincinnati still.”
Nijkamp and his staff have narrowed down a shortlist and begun phone interviews. Prospective coaches include those from Europe and South America, as well as domestic options.
“It was a very difficult situation," Nijkamp admitted. "We have to learn from it, but we want to go forward. We believe in the project, we believe in the foundation we’ve built. The roster is better than last season, more impact players. We don’t want to start from scratch again.”
When Nijkamp took over last summer, the club had Yoann Damet as interim head coach after they parted ways with Alan Koch. The young manager is thought of highly around the club and Nijkamp didn't rush to find a full-time boss. It's a similar situation in 2020's early stages.
FC Cincinnati are focused on not rushing the coaching search and risking impatience at the neglect of long-term goals.
“He’s a very talented, up-and-coming guy," Nijkamp said of Damet. "I like him a lot. He’s open to learn, I compare him a little bit to myself when I was that age. He’s very committed, he’s on the ball and wants to be involved, in a good way. He’s challenging me, I can challenge him, then after the conversation we go in the same direction. That’s something I like from a working relationship.”
There are, of course, a few differences from the last coaching search.
After Jans' resignation, Nijkamp and president Jeff Berding have been quick to point out the club will learn moving forward. The screening process is thorough, ditto for the background check and there will be cultural sensitivity training.
Another key variance is the timeline. Last go 'round, the club talked about a short-term contract of 18 months to ensure that both Cincy and the manager were a good fit before heading into 2021. Now, with the 2020 season underway, the plan has shifted.
“The shortlist and interview candidates are all coaches we can see the future with," Nijkamp said. "My way is to find a coach who can be here for a long time, committed to FC Cincinnati.”
The squad is also in a better place.
“We had good and positive conversations in the offseason," Nijkamp said. "I came with my opinion in the last season for the needs and wishes of the squad, everyone was on board. [Acting fast] is the only way. Let’s say you wait: What did you do for all the supporters who are still engaged with the club? I’m 100 percent convinced we’ll have a packed stadium again in the home opener. We have to perform. It’s what you have to do for your supporters."
Week 1 didn't produce any points from an entertaining 3-2 loss at the New York Red Bulls, one of the league's best home clubs of the 2010s. Kubo endured a mixed debut, de Jong was unavailable as he sorts out his visa and Locadia only arrived in time to make the bench after finalizing his own visa situation.
"We believe in this roster – I hope after five games we still believe in this roster, we’ll see," Nijkamp joked from the corner of a bustling hotel bar. "It's always very important to create flexibility in your roster so you can grow every window.”
From Nijkamp, a reminder that the blissfully warm days of spring are right around the corner.