With FC Cincinnati’s form sinking following the early August exit of General Manager Gerad Nijkamp, head coach Jaap Stam’s fate as head coach was all but sealed. Stam was on borrowed time, and the lone decision left was whether team president Jeff Berding would sack the Dutch gaffer prior to the Orange and Blue’s final match of the season on November 7 or soon thereafter.
On Monday morning, the answer was provided. Less than 48 hours after his team conceded four successive goals before falling 4-2 to D.C. United in one of FC Cincinnati’s most dismal showings of the season, Stam was “relieved of his duties.” As pointed out by team beat writer Laurel Pfahler, FCC did not hold a press conference to face the media after announcing the firing, leaving it to players Geoff Cameron and Haris Medunjanin to be the first members of the franchise to face questions from the press Tuesday morning. Let’s just say actions speak louder than words in moments like this.
And speaking of words, here was Berding’s statement on Cincinnati’s decision to axe Stam:
“During our nearly two-month process to identify the next General Manager for FC Cincinnati, it was apparent that a head coach change was necessary. Therefore, after a great deal of deliberation, the club has made the decision to now move to the future with Jaap no longer serving as head coach. We believe a change in leadership is in the best interest of the club at this time, and a new General Manager will lead the search for a new head coach. We are an ambitious club and we remain focused on achieving our goals, the first of which is making Cincinnati a championship city. We thank Jaap for everything he has done for FC Cincinnati during his time here, and we wish him the best as he can now head home to be with his family.”
Assistant coaches Said Bakkati, who came along with Stam when he was hired in May 2020, and Yoann Damet, who had served as interim coach after Alan Koch was fired in May 2019 and following Ron Jans’ departure in February 2020, were also let go. Goalkeeping coach Jack Stern was retained. Tyrone Marshall, head coach of the organization’s U-19 team and future U-23 team, has been named interim head coach. He’s a former Real Salt Lake assistant who enjoyed a lengthy playing career in MLS.
When FC Cincinnati hires a new General Manager—which could be imminent, more on that below—and a new head coach, they will be the third and fourth people, respectively, to fill those positions since FCC joined MLS in 2019. That’s an ignominious stain on an organization that is crumbling toward last place in the Eastern Conference for the third year running. Stam’s departure also ends FCC’s Dutch experiment, a beyond-reason dream of bringing eye-catching, possession-based soccer to Cincinnati.
Berding is already on record as saying MLS experience will be prioritized in the next General Manager. Philadelphia technical director Chris Albright, a former MLS player who’s played a key role in the Union’s ascent to perennial contender status in the East, is apparently the frontrunner. The Athletic reported Tuesday that FC Cincinnati was negotiating with Albright after failing to come to terms with Seattle Sounders senior VP of soccer operations and sporting director Craig Waibel. A likely prerequisite for Albright or whoever accepts the vacant GM position was going to be the ability to hire his own head coach. As it stands, FCC’s dismal 2021 campaign provided Stam with little leverage for keeping his job anyway. And the Orange and Blue weren’t about to have Stam’s firing be the first order of business for their new GM.
It’s worth noting the chaos Stam stepped into when he was brought on 16 months ago. The former Manchester United, A.C. Milan, and Netherlands national team standout was hired three months after the pandemic began, and his first task was navigating the MLS Is Back tournament six weeks later (which he did successfully, shockingly getting FC Cincinnati to the knockout round). A haphazard 2020 regular season followed with COVID-caused scheduling and travel irregularities and a very condensed fixture slate that resulted in a rash of muscle injuries near the end of the season.
Furthermore, Stam was the victim of the poor roster-building that’s plagued the franchise since it signed on the MLS dotted line in May 2018. FC Cincinnati’s historically short runway to MLS combined with roster blunder after roster blunder have ensured that the club’s climb to potential respectability will almost certainly be long and arduous. It’s also fair to point out Stam’s shortcomings, such as his rigid player rotation and odd formation choices. Though he was a top-class defender in his playing days, Stam’s managerial career has been less successful; he’s never cracked a winning percentage higher than 41 percent across his time in England’s second division, the Dutch first division, and now MLS.
FC Cincinnati, though still mightily flawed and thin on top-to-bottom depth, entered 2021 with its most talented roster to date. Despite no significant injury absences and a normal schedule, the team has regressed and struggled in the most crucial areas of the pitch. FCC was 3-6-7 (wins, losses, draws) when Nijkamp departed almost two months ago. Entering tonight’s match against the only team below it in the East standings, Toronto, the Orange and Blue are 4-13-8, averaging 0.80 points per game, a miniscule improvement over 2020 (0.70) and 2019 (0.71).
With any hope of a playoff push—a goal ownership yearned for at the season’s onset—now extinguished and a new General Manager forthcoming, the writing was on the wall for Stam. In conclusion, I’ll echo what I wrote after Nijkamp’s exit: Berding can’t afford to miss on these two open positions, especially the GM role. Get it right, and FC Cincinnati can embark on a slow climb to mediocrity and, eventually, consistent playoff contention due to ownership’s public commitment to winning or at least spending enough money to win (though not always in the right places or on the right players). Get it wrong, and FCC will continue its role as a rudderless franchise with no clear direction and a culture of losing. No pressure.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.