Just two and a half weeks away from commencing its fourth campaign in Major League Soccer, FC Cincinnati recently returned to Clearwater, Florida, for its second round of preseason training. On February 26, FCC will open the regular season at Austin FC, a 2021 expansion franchise that placed 12th out of 13 clubs in the Western Conference—but still tallied 11 more points (31-20) than the Orange and Blue.
The third time certainly was not the charm for FC Cincinnati in 2021, with the club finishing last in points for the third year running. FCC logged 0.59 points per match, its worst showing in three seasons of MLS play, and once again ranked near or at the bottom of the league in goals scored and surrendered. These achievements came in spite of the high-profile preseason acquisitions of Brazilian striker Brenner and ex-D.C. United talisman Lucho Acosta and the May signing of former U.S. men’s national team regular and English Premier League defender Geoff Cameron.
FC Cincinnati’s ineptitude cost General Manager Gerard Nijkamp his position in early August, which preceded the exit of second-year head coach Jaap Stam in late September. In early October, ex-Philadelphia Union Technical Director Chris Albright was tabbed as FC Cincinnati’s next General Manager after then-FCC President (and now Co-CEO) Jeff Berding pledged to hire a GM with substantial MLS experience.
The 2021-22 MLS offseason began in earnest once the season ended with New York City FC’s victory over Portland on December 11. Albright didn’t waste any time. Three days after MLS Cup, he hired a familiar face to be FCC’s sixth head coach, Philadelphia assistant coach Pat Noonan.
Albright and Noonan share a number of common traits, having worked together in Philly over the past four seasons. Both also enjoyed lengthy MLS playing careers, were league All-Stars, and won a pair of MLS Cups: Albright with the LA Galaxy in 2002 and 2005 and Noonan with Columbus in 2008 and the Galaxy in 2012. Albright (22 appearances) and Noonan (15) each logged time with the U.S. men’s national team, too, with the latter also serving as an assistant coach to Bruce Arena.
With Noonan’s hiring, Albright fulfilled a vow to bring in a new head coach with MLS experience, and while Noonan lacks head coaching chops he’s well-traveled in MLS coaching circles. In addition to his time as a player, he was an assistant to Arena, the most successful coach in league history, for four seasons with the Galaxy before his roles with the USMNT and Philadelphia. Noonan’s staff is lined with impressive MLS resumes, too.
Assistant coach Dominic Kinnear claimed MLS Cups with Houston in 2006 and 2007, has managed four franchises in total, and, as noted by The Cincinnati Enquirer, is the fifth winningest coach in MLS history. Another assistant, Kenny Arena, Bruce’s son, coached with Noonan during his stops with the Galaxy and the USMNT and spent the past four years with Los Angeles FC under former USMNT head coach Bob Bradley. Director of Goalkeeping Paul Rogers was the longtime head of goalkeeping in Houston. Again, this coaching staff has MLS experience in spades.
As for player moves, before he brought on the new coaching staff, Albright declined the contract options of nine players, notably Joe Gyau, who played all over the pitch for FCC during his two-plus seasons in Cincinnati; defender Nick Hagglund, who was later re-signed (more on that below); and midfielder Caleb Stanko and goalkeeper Przemysław Tytoń, each of whom had been with the club since it joined MLS in 2019. Furthermore, midfielders Haris Medunjanin and Florian Valot and defender Maikel van der Werff—who missed the entire 2021 season—saw their contracts expire, though Medunjanin was later re-signed.
The first move of the Albright-Noonan partnership was signing Alvas Powell, a right back/right winger who played for FC Cincinnati during its inaugural MLS season. He has 157 MLS appearances to his name and revived his career in Philadelphia in 2021, showing well in the Union’s playoff run.
The same day it inked Powell to a contract, FC Cincinnati signed goalkeeper Alec Kann to a deal through the 2023 season. Kann served as Brad Guzan’s backup during his five years with Atlanta United, appearing in only six matches over the past four seasons. After rostering all three of MLS’s worst shot stoppers from 2017-2021 last season, FC Cincinnati have upgraded to one of the league’s best shot blockers—though Kann’s limited minutes over the years and the perennial porousness of FCC’s defense should be taken into account before declaring his signing an outright success.
Just after the new year, another ex-Union player was signed—this time out of retirement. Ray Gaddis, a right back, hung up his cleats after the 2020 season. Now 32, he’s logged more than 19,000 minutes in his MLS career, all with the Union, and will likely compete with Powell for the starting right back position. Albright clearly believes that Gaddis has plenty left in the tank and values the veteran’s leadership skills. Gaddis is a co-founder of Black Players for Change and a member of the Black Players Coalition. The United Soccer Coaches honored Gaddis with the Jerry Yeagley Award for Exceptional Personal Achievement last month.
“When Ray stepped away from the game a year ago, he was arguably playing at the highest level of his career,” Albright said in a team release. “He’s a lockdown defender and with the ability to play both outside back positions. His character and leadership are second-to-none, and he will be an excellent addition to the group.”
Other notable player moves include the addition of veteran MLS striker Dominique Badji, who has 38 goals and 17 assists in 153 appearances; left back John Nelson, who’s played in 30 MLS games, has playoff experience, and will provide cover for starting left back Ronald Matarrita; and the re-signing of Hagglund, who will fight for minutes at center back with Cameron, Tyler Blackett, and Gustavo Vallecilla.
In January’s MLS SuperDraft, FC Cincinnati used the No. 2 overall selection on Indiana University goalkeeper Roman Celentano, a Generation adidas player, meaning Celentano’s salary will not count against FCC’s salary cap. Celentano was the first player in Big Ten history to win Goalkeeper of the Year in back to back seasons.
Days after the SuperDraft, FC Cincinnati bought out Kamohelo Mokotjo. The defensive midfielder arrived in August 2020 after a successful stint with English side Brentford but failed to impress in 22 appearances, part of the reason why FCC is still seeking at least one capable defensive midfielder. In early February, the club mutually parted ways with Kyle Scott, another midfielder, after Scott registered just four appearances with the club last season.
Those who expected a roster overhaul—or a headline-grabbing transfer like Toronto acquiring Napoli star Lorenzo Insigne while the 30-year-old winger is still in his prime—are likely miffed, but don’t let the disappointment set in just yet. MLS has yet to formally announce the specifics regarding its early-season Primary Transfer Window, and chances are the FC Cincinnati roster that flies to Texas later this month will have a handful of additions and subtractions a few months later. Just this morning, Albright announced a tidy bit of business with the New York Red Bulls to acquire $100,000 in General Allocation Money and remain in the No. 1 spot in the Allocation Order.
In two weeks, I’ll preview the 2022 season in full. Until then, enjoy that American football game taking place in Los Angeles on Sunday evening. Who Dey!
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.