FC Cincinnati general manager Gerard Nijkamp knows fans are anxious for some new player signings to start pouring in. He wants to see that too, he said Wednesday, but he also needs to ensure he’s making the right decisions to put the club in a position to be successful in 2021.
For him, that meant holding back in the Re-Entry Draft and getting some general allocation money instead of taking players. Nijkamp remains optimistic he will still be able to add some MLS experience to the roster this offseason while also making room for some new international signings.
Nijkamp hopes to have the roster about 85 percent complete by the start of the preseason, but there remain many holes in the lineup, especially on the back line where three starters moved on and in the center attacking midfield role vacated by the departure of Siem de Jong.
“We are looking at a lot of work to do,” Nijkamp said Wednesday on a video webinar with media. “The reason I am in the Netherlands is because I want to make some trades, but also to be close contact with Jaap (Stam). Daily we have our meetings but also of course with my team and a lot of time on the phone with Hunter (Freeman) to make at the end of the day the right decision what is the best case for our club and I think some good things are coming our way. It’s always the right moment to make the right decision.”
As of Wednesday, FCC had just four senior roster spots available if everyone remains and no international slots, unless green cards come through as expected (two are nearing the finish line, he said). Franko Kovacevic, on loan from Hoffenheim, will be evaluated on a trial basis this preseason to determine if he is a good enough fit to warrant the use of an international, senior slot, and the club remains uncommitted to keeping Jurgen Locadia, who is set to remain on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion through June.
Nijkamp has said before that other players could be moved and re-iterated that once again Wednesday. Players were told before breaking for the offseason what the vision of the roster was for 2021 and how individuals might fit into the plan. Those who could find greater roles elsewhere were welcome to look for those opportunities, and player trades also could open room in the roster.
However, Nijkamp expressed that Yuya Kubo – one who struggled to adjust to the league his first season – likely isn’t among those who might not return.
“We’ll see what happens with Jurgen, we have faith in Yuya to stay here for 2021,” Nijkamp said. “Now, he’s adapting, he is understanding more what are the needs in the way of how to play in the MLS, that he produces a better performance for us in 2021. I think also for Jaap it was a very important first year in the league to get an understanding of the quality of the league and also to read the opponents in that way and to get the best things out of it for getting advantage for ’21. … That must all help with the new signings we will do in the next couple of weeks or months that we will perform better in our beautiful new stadium in the West End.”
So far, since the initial roster moves were made following the end of the 2020 season, the only new additions have come in re-signing four players – Nick Hagglund, Prezmyslaw Tyton, Joe Gyau and Caleb Stanko — to new contracts that created more flexibility in the budget. The club selected former New York Red Bulls homegrown winger Ben Mines in the waiver draft, but FCC still needs to sign him.
Nijkamp called Mines a player who will get time in the roster next year “to develop himself and show his abilities.”
“We feel that he is a talent in the way what he already did for New York, but also can make the next step in our club with a specific profile he has. I think for the future you will be an added value for our roster,” Nijkamp said.
Cincinnati traded its top spot in the first stage of the re-entry draft to Atlanta for $75,000 in GAM and passed along with 23 of the other 27 teams that didn’t take players. The club also passed in Stage 2.
Nijkamp said the trade with Atlanta will prove “very useful for future trades” the club wants to make, and that made it a successful draft for FCC – even though Atlanta used the first pick to take left back Andrew Gutman, who remains under contract with Celtic and was still in Nijkamp’s plans until last week.
“He’s not our player, so it was hard to control him at that point and also with the swap of course, Atlanta took his rights,” Nijkamp said. “But I will not say he will also play next season in MLS because Celtic has ideas about him, so it was also for us, too long to wait for the situation and hopefully we can announce sooner than later the player or players we will add to our roster who can fill in that position of left fullback.”
Asked how he viewed the re-entry draft pool, Nijkamp said there are certain positions he was interested in adding players through the MLS mechanisms but Gutman was the only one available FCC felt fit needs at that time. Teams could not select their own players, so Gutman was not longer an option by the time the draft began.
Gutman’s departure means FCC now needs two left backs instead of one, but Nijkamp said he’s always working on a “Plan B” or “Plan C.”
“I think when we succeed to get the player we want, because it is a very important position in the way we want to play and how Jaap wants to go into games — what Joe (Gyau) also did in the beginning of the season, we want to have the same on that left side — everyone will understand what we did,” Nijkamp said. “But at this moment I cannot say anything more about it.”
But while other clubs already have announced trades and used the MLS roster mechanisms to add to their rosters, some have questioned FCC’s lack of activity on the domestic market so far. Nijkamp indicated after 18 months with FCC, he has a better understanding of the need for MLS-experienced players to be successful, and he’s still working to add in that area.
There are still plenty of free agents available on the domestic market, and it seems FCC has plans to either pull from that or entice domestic players from abroad to come back to MLS.
“Domestic players, or players with experience in the league can be for us great added value,” he said. “Players from abroad, they bring different qualities, but also some players need some time, you see it this season with Yuya Kubo, with Jurgen Locadia, to adapt on that style, on the pace of the competition, on the opponents etc, etc. So yes, the domestic market is to me more and more important.
“I want to invest in this market and we did our homework for it and hopefully we can execute it in the next couple of weeks. But yeah, that understanding is coming more and more, the domestic markets with players who understand how the league works, so the expectation is directly there at the beginning and with international, we have to take that in accounts that some players also need some time to adjust these qualities what is needed to cope in this league.”
Nijkamp said he still sees plenty of interest both domestically and abroad for FCC, despite back-to-back last-place finishes the first two seasons in MLS. The team often received compliments for its quality of play even after losses, he said, and players can see the project is growing.
In terms of international targets, there has been speculation circulating on social media that FCC is trying to sign Atalanta star Papu Gomez as the high-profile designated player Nijkamp has been speaking of wanting to add at the No. 10 spot.
However, when asked about the speculated negotiations to acquire the Serie A player, Nijkamp seemed to be denying the interest.
“We are looking for a high profile DP, decision-maker DP — yes, we are working on that but there’s a lot of rumors,” he said. “You must not believe all the rumors that are going out because a lot of people like to put rumors outside to make the general manager a little nervous and to make another right decision at the end of the day, so yes, we are looking for decision-making DP and we will see what’s happening in the near future.”
Nijkamp said with so many clubs and leagues struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s getting easier to find teams wanting to move players and often at cheaper prices than they might otherwise ask in transfer fees. FCC is hoping that benefits them, not only while looking for players in Europe but also in South America.
The opening of a new stadium in 2021 also still adds some excitement for FCC, and moving to a grass surface should improve not only the quality of play for the team but also open opportunities for higher-level signings.
“Everyone understands this takes time, and we want to do it quick,” Nijkamp said. “And we are working everyday very hard on that stuff so not only the compliments next season (are) about the way we are playing, beautiful stadium, beautiful training facility, but also we get the compliments about better results and achieve performance, achieve our goals. So, I don’t feel any negative around us, and that gives me and my team, a lot of confidence to make it better for ’21.”