Aaron Boupendza’s Murky Future with FC Cincinnati

A broken jaw suffered in an off-field incident happens to coincide with FCC’s acquisition of 19-year-old striker Kevin Kelsy.
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Striker Aaron Boupendza transferred from Saudi Pro League side Al-Shabab FC to FC Cincinnati on June 12, 2023. He had 63 goals in 138 professional appearances, had scored five times for the Gabon national team, and was seen as a proven goalscorer with experience in multiple Asian first division leagues.

Boupendza’s arrival was critical to the club’s present and future. He was a direct replacement for the departed Brenner and insurance for Brandon Vazquez’s eventual departure, while also bolstering a 2023 regular season steamroller that won the Supporters’ Shield. Boupendza scored five times in 10 appearances last season, averaging a goal roughly every 121 minutes.

Boupendza scored in front of the Bailey in his team debut and notched the Shield-clinching goal in Toronto. And in the East Final against Columbus, if the ball had bounced lightly off of his chest instead of his hand, the Orange and Blue would have been up 3-0 with just over 20 minutes to play against the eventual MLS champs. Instead, Boupendza could be on his way out of town before the year, or even the summer, is over.

How did we get to this point? First, here are the Boupendza incidents that are public knowledge or have been reported by reputable outlets:

  • Suffered a broken jaw as the alleged victim in a late-night altercation at a downtown pizza restaurant.
  • Alleged extortion victim in sex tape scandal.
  • Sent back to the U.S. by the Gabon national team while on international duty in November for failing to show up for a match.
  • Suspended by FC Cincinnati in October for returning late from international duty.

Tardiness and a pair of incidents where Boupendza is the alleged victim—to FC Cincinnati decision-makers, these are certainly annoying and worrisome but would tolerable if Boupendza had been bagging goals in 2024 (he hasn’t), didn’t occupy one of the club’s three precious Designated Player slots (he does), and didn’t reportedly cost ownership $7 million in transfer fees (he did).

The Athletic reported that FCC had been “ready to move” from Boupendza this summer even before the club announced on May 1 that he’d miss six to eight weeks recovering from a broken jaw in an “off-field injury.” The 27-year-old had been removed from the starting lineup in the past two matches he was available for, a pair of wins over Colorado and Atlanta. With Yuya Kubo starting in his place, Boupendza logged just 15 combined minutes from the bench in those games. In 2024 so far, he has two league goals in 10 appearances (five starts), with another score in Concacaf Champions Cup play. He likely won’t see the field again until July.

Enter Kevin Kelsy

Less than a year after Boupendza effectively replaced Brenner, Kevin Kelsy could do the same to Boupendza. Ironically enough, Kelsy’s addition became official in the same week Boupendza became sidelined indefinitely.

Head coach Pat Noonan is already chuffed with the 19-year-old’s professionalism and noted that the 6-foot-3 Kelsy provides a different striker profile than any other forward on the roster. He’s with FCC on loan for the rest of the season, but the club retains a buy option in its loan agreement with Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk.

Kelsy debuted on Saturday night against Orlando, and his output will determine whether General Manager Chris Albright decides to pick up the buy option, whether Boupendza has played his last minutes in Cincinnati, or whether the two could possibly coexist as a striker tandem for years to come. Boupendza’s contract runs through 2025, with options for 2026 and 2027, but that won’t stop Albright from shopping the striker in an attempt to both recoup his transfer fee and find a better on- and off-pitch fit for the club.

Escape in Orlando

Over the weekend in Orlando, the Orange and Blue failed to impress in a 1-0 win. The match was defined by the quickest goal in FCC history (17 seconds in by Lucho Acosta) and a 23rd-minute red card by Orlando. Despite playing a man down for the majority of the match, the hosts were the superior side and lost despite doubling up FC Cincinnati in expected goals. I wasn’t impressed. Neither was the head coach.

“Once the red card happened, we played scared,” Noonan said. “We played afraid to make mistakes, we lost the intensity in going to the ball and made safe passes. I think we were afraid to go to goal and leave opportunities for them to transition. So credit to Orlando, they were the better team despite playing down a man.”

FCC’s bleh showing was magnified by a spectacularly immature showing from Bret Halsey. After subbing in for right wingback DeAndre Yedlin—playing through a painful hip pointer—in the 55th minute, Halsey picked up a senseless yellow a minute into his shift, then added a second yellow and was sent off for kicking the ball away in the 78th minute, eliminating the visitors’ man advantage.

I’m interested to see how FC Cincinnati responds in the first Hell Is Real derby of 2024 Saturday night in Columbus. The Crew are riding high after a definitive 3-1 victory in Monterrey last week propelled them to the Concacaf Champions Cup final. Columbus has the mentality advantage, not only because of the two team’s last meeting but because FCC hasn’t scored in Columbus since August 27, 2021. The hosts will also be operating on 10 days of rest.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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