FC Cincinnati’s USL Player Promotion Strategy Backfires

Only one of the 11 players FCC brought to the MLS from last year’s minor league squad has had a successful season.
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Eyebrows were raised over the offseason when FC Cincinnati elected to promote 11 players from its 2018 United Soccer League squad to its initial Major League Soccer roster. Certainly, these were talented players; FCC won the regular-season USL title by 11 points and went 23 games in a row without defeat. That was a damn good side.

 

But MLS is another beast entirely, and FC Cincinnati looked like it was bringing a few too many JV players to an eight-month-long varsity campaign. Per MLSsoccer.com, only the 2011 Vancouver Whitecaps had brought up more players (13) from the minors during its expansion season. Vancouver went on to finish dead last in the Western Conference with 28 points and a minus-20 goal differential.

With five games remaining in its debut MLS season, FC Cincinnati has a paltry 18 points and a minus-43 goal differential. It would be unfair to blame FCC’s dumpster fire of a record on the USL players; there have also been two coaching changes, multiple front office shake-ups, a radical playing philosophy shift and regular injuries to many of the club’s best players. But it’s also fair to say that FC Cincinnati’s decision to round out its first MLS squad with so many USL players was unwise.

In alphabetical order, let’s review how the USL holdovers have done in 2019:

Fanendo Adi:

One of FC’s Cincinnati’s two Designated Players and a former impact player in MLS, Adi has endured a season to forget. He’s appeared in just 12 games through a combination of injury and suspension and was openly critical of former head coach Alan Koch’s tactics. Adi’s on-field production has been nonexistent, with just a single goal scored in 695 minutes played. Given FCC’s long road to contention, a divorce from Adi—whose nearly $2 million in 2019 compensation accounts for almost 22 percent of FC Cincinnati’s salary pool—would be beneficial to both sides.

Nazmi Albadawi:

The midfielder logged just nine minutes of MLS time before being loaned to North Carolina FC of the USL Championship (formerly the USL). One of FC Cincinnati’s preeminent creative talents a year ago with 11 goals and four assists, Albadawi has probably placed his last game for the Orange and Blue.

Fatai Alashe:

Along with Adi, Alashe stepped down from MLS in 2018 and played for FC Cincinnati in its final USL campaign. Injuries have tripped up the 25-year-old midfielder this season, limiting him to seven games and two starts. Still, given Alashe’s age, reasonable salary, experience in MLS (nearly 6,500 minutes) and ability to play all over the midfield—he’s even played right back in 2019—bet on him returning in 2020.

Corben Bone:

He’ll forever be an institution at the club, but he’s logged just 186 minutes in 2019, a stark reversal for the midfielder after leading the club in minutes last year. Bone’s future is very much up in the air, though his previous MLS experience from 2010 to 2014 with Chicago and Philadelphia could play in his favor.

Justin Hoyte:

The center back/fullback was a regular under interim coach Yoann Damet but has lost his place in the starting XI since Ron Jans took over, playing just once in FC Cincinnati’s past five games. At 34, Hoyte’s best days are behind him, and with his family reportedly back in England his days with FCC look to be numbered.

Forrest Lasso:

Prior to his loan to Nashville in the USL in late July, Lasso appeared in five matches (four starts) with the Orange and Blue. The reigning USL Defender of the Year is fourth in the center back pecking order behind starters Kendall Waston and Maikel van der Werff and top backup Nick Hagglund. If Hagglund departs in the offseason, look for FC Cincinnati to recruit a backup with more top-division experience than Lasso, especially with Waston and van der Werff both over 30. It’s possible Lasso returns next year but is loaned out once again.

Emmanuel Ledesma:

An unquestioned bright spot in a black eye of a season, he leads FC Cincinnati in goals (six) and assists (four). The USL MVP a season ago, Ledesma took a while to get going in his first MLS go-around, but he’s delivered plenty lately, scoring four times over the club’s past seven games and becoming FCC’s No. 1 penalty taker. The Athletic reported this week that Ledesma was asked by the club to apply for a green card, which could potentially open up a valuable international roster spot and also signals FC Cincinnati’s interest in retaining him.

Jimmy McLaughlin:

A veritable club legend from 2016 to 2018, McLaughlin tore his ACL in the offseason and won’t see the field in 2019. Heading into 2020, he’ll be behind fellow wingers Derrick Etienne Jr., Joe Gyau, Roland Lamah and Kekuta Manneh.

Spencer Richey:

During FC Cincinnati’s final USL season, Evan Newton actually appeared in more games (20) than Richey (16) at goalkeeper. Richey has started 19 games in 2019 and has mostly done well in standing in front of the worst defense in MLS. He hasn’t appeared in the last seven games because of injury, but Richey seems more likely to return next year over Przemysław Tytoń; the difference in quality between the two keepers may not be much, but Tytoń makes four and a half times as much at Richey.

Blake Smith:

After starting every game when available in 2018, the fullback was waived after FC Cincinnati’s first game of the season.

Emery Welshman:

The striker got injured in the preseason and then was loaned to Forge FC of the Canadian Premier League in March. After Welshman and FCC mutually parted ways in August, he took his career to the Israeli Premier League.

And so, of the 11, only Ledesma has been an unquestioned success; Richey has been solid, and Alashe gets an incomplete with his injuries. Some of the players were impacted by injuries, but FC Cincinnati’s strategy of relying on career minor leaguers and former top-division players who were in the minors because of age and/or quality reasons backfired. Most of them won’t return, and it will be up to General Manager Gerard Nijkamp to make certain the Orange and Blue are better equipped to cope with injuries and international absences—two challenges that impact every MLS side—in 2020.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Off the pitch, he is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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