FC Cincinnati wasted no time in jumpstarting their offseason. About 15 hours after their final match of 2020, the club announced their end of season roster decisions.
As expected, it signaled how much the club expect to change this winter as they strive to reverse their fortunes following a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference for the second straight season.
Of the 15 players with 2021 contract options, Cincy declined to pick up the option for 12 of them, as well as allowing a few more to depart with the expiration of their contract after this season. They now have just 15 players under contract for 2021. A number of key players won't be back, including defenders Kendall Waston, Greg Garza and Mathieu Deplagne as well as ex-Ajax midfielder Siem de Jong. All four carried significant salary cap hits.
GM Gerard Nijkamp and his staff will have plenty of flexibility to make more sweeping changes to the roster. Only three players remain from the squad Nijkamp inherited in 2019.
“It will be a long offseason," Nijkamp told media on a virtual press conference Monday. "It gives us time to find the right prospects, what we need to help us build the roster and be more successful than this season. We want to build and improve the playing style."
Monday's decisions leave the club with eight players occupying international roster slots — the number most teams start with every offseason — but Nijkamp noted Cincy are hopeful a handful of players will receive their green cards this offseason. Receiving a green card gives the player domestic status, thus opening an international slot.
They have all three Designated Player slots filled but sources told MLSsoccer.com that Yuya Kubo and Allan Cruz could be bought down with allocation money to open two more spots. The third current DP is Jurgen Locadia, who is still only on loan at the club through next summer. They have a purchase option at the end of June.
“We need to add different types of players with different abilities, that’s what I need in my playstyle," head coach Jaap Stam said. "We’re already doing that, we’ve made some decisions. We need to add certain quality to the roster to make a difference.”
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Cincy could still see a few more players return in 2021. Andrew Gutman's loan from Celtic expires after this season but Nijkamp confirmed the clubs were in negotiations about the left back extending his stay stateside, be it on a permanent transfer or another loan. Joe Gyau is also in discussions with the team. Stam said he's hopeful player and club will reach an agreement.
Still, there will be plenty of key players to arrive. The club have identified a number of positions and profiles to target. With Waston and Deplagne gone, plus Nick Hagglund still in negotiations over a return, they have obvious holes to fill in defense. But that's far from the only area of need.
“We want to improve in central defense," Nijkamp said. "The way as a club we want to play … we need central defenders who can play with pace in the back. We need an addition on the No. 10, a creator. We can also improve on one of the wings. We have to see what is available.”
Cincy conceded a league-record 75 goals in their expansion season but improved to 36 conceded in 23 games this year, closer to the middle of the pack. They scored a season-low 12 goals this year, however.
With Nijkamp's staff focused on identifying and acquiring the right targets, Stam and the coaches have already begun preparation for preseason. The 48-year-old was appointed Cincy coach during the league's suspension of play due to the COVID-19 pandemic and took over just before the MLS is Back Tournament. He had about two weeks of training before his first competitive game and no friendlies.
The former Dutch international defender picked up 16 points in 21 matches, while often switching between 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 formations.
“Jaap was focusing on implementing and improving the playing style, trying to get the best out of the squad," Nijkamp said. "At the beginning we got several results which was promising, but it was disappointing we didn’t get many positives results towards the end of the season. There were moments we deserved results but didn’t get them. … We have 100% confidence that Jaap is the right person to guide us as head coach in better times, in a new season and a new stadium.”
All the flexibility, as well as encouraging moments under Stam for a number of individual players, have given Cincy hope once again heading into their brand new West End Stadium in 2021 despite losing nine of their final 10 games.
“People from within the league who have seen us play, then they know something is happening here," Stam said. "We’ve played a lot of good games. … We’re in a good way, we’re going forward and will be making it very difficult for a lot of teams in the league next season.”