The midpoint of FC Cincinnati’s 34-match regular season was crossed this past weekend with its third straight draw, a 1-1 tie with Orlando City that leaves the team 13th in the East with 16 points, a single point above last-place Toronto. The Orange and Blue, who are off until August 18 during a crucial make-or-break month, are averaging 0.94 points per match, a marginal improvement over 2020 (0.70) and 2019 (0.71).
But the major club news of the week wasn’t the latest draw—it was, of course, the franchise “mutually parting ways” with General Manager Gerard Nijkamp. FC Cincinnati’s record under Nijkamp, who was hired in May 2019, was 7-20-10 (wins, losses, draws). Here was FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding’s statement:
“I would like to thank Gerard for his commitment and dedication to FC Cincinnati. Gerard has been a key leader in the development in our project—opening of TQL Stadium, improving the roster, player development from the Academy to the first team, and building a broader soccer infrastructure that positions us for success in the future. We sincerely appreciate Gerard’s efforts over the past two years and respect his decision to return to his family in Europe. We wish him and his family the best of luck moving forward. With a significant portion of the season remaining, our focus is on improving our play on the pitch and earning a playoff spot. Our search for Gerard’s successor will begin immediately and focus on identifying the leader that best aligns with our ambition to win a championship in Major League Soccer.”
The timing of this “mutual parting of ways” (smack in the middle of the season) appeared odd when the news broke, but upon further reflection and with additional insight from Berding—who took just two questions from the media during last Friday’s Zoom announcement—the decision makes sense now. It seems strange that Nijkamp wouldn’t want to see the season through, but if his heart was indeed pulling him back to Europe, finishing FCC’s business through the close of last week’s Secondary Transfer window and then stepping down appears sensical on paper. Nijkamp leaving now provides club decision-makers an extra three months to search for his replacement.
Berding gave an interview to The Cincinnati Enquirer over the weekend, however, and it’s evident to me that the mutual parting of ways was a more of one-sided club decision. Through my many years covering high school, college, and pro sports, my brow becomes furrowed when someone abruptly leaves a job and one of the key reasons cited is to spend additional time with his or her family. This “family excuse” is typically code for a forced resignation or termination. The key details to glean from Berding are that there is no timetable to hire a replacement; Berding took responsibility for hiring Nijkamp and reiterated that he’s fully aware of the gravity of his role as team president; and MLS experience will be a central factor in hiring the next GM.
The prioritization of MLS experience is another indicator of why this mutual parting of ways fails the smell test. Nijkamp had zero MLS experience when he was hired, and that lack of familiarity with the league was reflected in the ways FC Cincinnati often curiously channeled its Targeted Allocation Money and General Allocation Money and navigated the complex puzzle that is MLS’s salary cap. FCC possesses more top-end talent than it ever has—Nijkamp was never shy about chasing big-name signings—but it has continually fielded one of the weakest, if not the weakest, top-to-bottom rosters in the league.
I’m of the opinion that Jaap Stam thinks this is the case. Otherwise why would he continually field primarily the same starting XI and fail to rotate his squad during heavy fixture periods? Why would he seemingly wait 10-15 minutes too long to sub certain players out or make any subs at all? In Saturday’s 1-1 draw—FC Cincinnati’s third match in eight days—Stam brought on goalkeeper Przemysław Tytoń for an injured Kenneth Vermeer in the 65th minute, and by that time Orlando—playing its third game in nine days—had already made four substitutions. Stam didn’t make his first tactical sub until the 83rd minute.
Nijkamp certainly had more flops than hits as FC Cincinnati’s GM, but it must be said that he inherited a mess of a roster full of too many USL call-ups and MLS has-beens. Two-plus years later, the roster—most critically the depth of talent, particularly in the midfield and defense—remains lacking, as Nijkamp swung and missed on high-profile signings and a number of new-to-MLS foreign players who were usually past their prime and/or not a fit for the league.
Nijkamp’s final two acts as GM were to acquire midfielder Florian Valot from New York Red Bulls and defender Tyler Blackett from English club Nottingham Forest. Blackett, who played under Stam in England, is recovering from groin surgery and it’s unknown when he’ll be available. Valot made his Cincinnati debut in the 90th minute over the weekend.
The next General Manager has a whale of a task in front of them, which is why it is so, so, so critical that Berding gets this hire right. FC Cincinnati hasn’t yet finished its third MLS campaign and is now accepting applications for its third General Manager. (Berding was GM from the club’s founding until Nijkamp was brought aboard.)
FC Cincinnati may retain playoff ambitions for 2021, but the more likely outcome is the Orange and Blue finishing in or near last place in the East. The focus for the rest of this season should be determining which players are a fit for the current team and the future; ascertaining Stam’s role beyond 2021; and, once again, hiring the right GM. The latter will determine whether FC Cincinnati spends its first half-decade in the dregs of the East or achieves MLS relevance within the next season or two.