This, we have been told, is the winter of our discontent.
COVID-19 continues to ravage communities across North America and beyond, even as vaccines are produced and distributed. Meanwhile, cold weather conditions across much of this continent complicate our chances of socializing safely in outdoor environments.
Those of us who look to sports for respite from all that can thank FC Cincinnati for taking us on an unexpected flight of fancy with the bombshell signing of Brenner Souza da Silva.
This is that rare sort of transaction that can simultaneously thrill legions of Orange-and-Blue fans along the Ohio River and spark a dozen different conversations around MLS about What It All Means. The Brazilian strike starlet has been tracked by a legion of European giants including Juventus, AC Milan, Ajax and Arsenal, and as recently as December he reportedly had a price tag of $60 million affixed to him thanks to his head-turning goal-scoring exploits for Sao Paulo FC.
But the 21-year-old has chosen Cincy, and MLS, for his first destination abroad. If the multiple media reports about his transfer are correct, FCC have paid $13 million up front with another $2 million or so in potential bonuses and incentives in the offing for the privilege. It looks to have gained them an exemplary frontrunner, a pure marksman blessed with a poacher’s predatory instincts as well as the complementary skill set of a No. 9 to spearhead coach Jaap Stam’s preferred Dutch-style 4-3-3.
Spending like this conjures up the idea of a new front in two of this league’s most powerful contemporary narratives: The “Play Your Kids” movement and the ambition to become a true selling league, a thruway for both homegrowns and top prospects from around the globe to reach the world’s richest leagues. While Brenner's deal is large enough to push him into Young Designated Player status, the timing draws attention to MLS’s new under-22 player initiative, which the league has indicated will discount the salary-budget hit for other signings of comparable age and profile.
And, while highly rated starlets have arrived on these shores from other South American nations like Argentina and Uruguay in recent years, Brenner represents the first arrival of his kind from the spiritual home of joga bonito.
That’s all well and good and lots of fun to debate. This is also a big gamble on Cincy’s part – there’s no escaping it.
FCC have languished at the bottom of both the league table and the scoring charts – by a wide margin – since their 2019 MLS debut. Though many expansion newcomers have struggled upon arrival from the lower divisions, perhaps none have suffered as rough a landing as Cincy, who won the USL Shield as the second tier’s regular-season champions before their ascension, powered on by the collective euphoria of their impressive fanbase.
21-year-old Ajax bound Brenner is heading to FC Cincinnati - 26th club of the last MLS season!— Football Talent Scout - Jacek Kulig (@FTalentScout) February 5, 2021
Brenner for Sao Paulo in Brasileirão this season:
MLS is no more "a country for old men". pic.twitter.com/ndBWAcViZ2
Now Brenner will arrive in the Queen City with the responsibility and expectation of solving their two-year attacking drought in MLS, or at least taking a good chunk out of the problem. It’s a burden for even the most talented 21-year-old, especially for a pioneer who’s chosen a path with few comparisons in recent history.
As thrilling as his highlight compilations are, Brenner still basically has less than one full season of first-team excellence on his resume, and has confessed that he lost focus and nearly quit on the game during a 2019 loan stint at Fluminense. As Goal.com’s Daniel Edwards pointed out, of the 21 goals he scored across all competitions last year, 13 of them came “in a one-month, 11-game spell in October and November.”
Now he’ll have to manage the learning curve of a new team, coach, league, nation, language and culture without allowing his overall performance levels to dip too precipitously. That’s an enormous ask for him, Stam and their entire club.
Reports suggest they’re trying to enlist another big name, former Atlanta United DP Pity Martinez, to help provide Brenner the service he’ll need. That would be another big-ticket expenditure, even if Pity can be extricated from Al-Nassr FC at a discount from the $18 million he cost the Saudi Arabian club barely five months ago.
Clubs that dropped more than $13m on a player this window:— Tutul Rahman (@tutulismyname) February 7, 2021
These are striking moves for any MLS organization to make, much less a young club that have so far languished at the bottom of the standings. We use words like “ambition” as shorthand for the means and willingness to make this kind of splash, though it also reflects a form of pressure.
After watching their team get kicked around for two years, FCC supporters need to see some signs of life, some recognition from the front office that they share the sense of urgency that such suffering causes, and the dramatic action it necessitates. Stam and GM Gerard Nijkamp have upped the ante enormously, and it pushes them into a hotter spotlight, too. No cautious incrementalism here!
The rest of us can cuss and discuss whether or not the Brenner gambit is the wisest course to plot in that direction. But in the meantime, Cincy have offered their faithful some samba dreams during these coldest months of the year, carrying hopes of an imminent dawn to break the darkness.