Nijkamp remains positive he can fill roster needs

FC Cincinnati general manager Gerard Nijkamp recognizes there are now time pressures with the league announcing an April starting date this week, but he continues to preach patience as he and his staff try to complete the roster.

The club has acquired three new players, outside of the four draft picks made last week, and still has plenty of roster spots to fill ahead of the 2021 season, which is now slated to start the weekend of April 3. Teams can begin preseason training Feb. 22.

Nijkamp said in a video conference with media Thursday there is no need to rush signings but he remains confident he can make the additions he still seeks.

“That’s a question we see back on Twitter and Facebook and all these social media platforms: When our other signings coming, and when is the window closed, and then all these kind of things,” Nijkamp said. “… We have to find the right players, what’s fitting our roster, what’s fitting the way we think we can be a winning team next season and also taking in account the starting date of the league, April 3, now we know. So that gives a little bit more guidance, but we are working hard to get these additions, and we are positive that we will succeed. But I cannot put a timeframe on it because yeah, it’s every time a balancing act talking with international, the domestic market, window closing, the windows going open, but still, we are on the right track and we go forward and we will sign hopefully sooner than later our new other players.”

For the last few weeks, Nijkamp and his staff have been trying to make moves while clubs around the world try to finalize rosters before their transfer windows close. Many of the windows, especially in Europe, close Monday while the window here is about to open, Feb. 10, and won’t close until May 4.

Nijkamp said that’s an advantage for MLS and Cincinnati. After acquiring winger/attacking midfielder Ben Mines and left back Ronald Matarrita in December, he’s still prioritizing the No. 10, winger, centerback and center forward positions.

“There are a lot of players still on the market,” Nijkamp said. “I think it’s an advantage for us when the windows close in (other parts of the) world and the only one, our window is still open till the beginning of May. So I’m very positive about it, that we will find these needs for these positions.”

FCC still has forwards Jurgen Locadia and Franko Kovacevic on loan through June, but Nijkamp wants to see how both perform in the preseason before committing to their spots on the roster in 2021. The No. 10 position opened with the departure of Siem de Jong, who struggled through an injury-plagued 2020 campaign, and the decision not to pick up Kendall Waston’s option opened a need at centerback.

The club also needs another left back, but Nijkamp said second-round draft pick Avionne Flanagan, out of the University of South Florida, will compete for that role in the preseason. Flanagan fits the profile of how Jaap Stam wants to use his fullbacks (more like wingbacks), but FCC needs to see if he can adjust quickly enough to be competitive at the MLS level.

“In the way we want to play and especially Jaap wants to play, our head coach, is that our right and left back is playing when we have the ball high and defending, coming down again, to create a lot of overlaps and to be dangerous in the final third also, giving crosses,” Nijkamp said. “… I think Flanagan is a player like that. Matarrita is a player like that, so staying close to the profile we are looking for, I think he is coming close to that. He showed it like Calvin Harris on another level, and we are very curious when we have in in our own environment if he can make the next step so that’s the reason also we want to see him in preseason, how he copes with everything, what will come in the training sessions and in games.”

Harris, a forward out of Wake Forest, was the club’s first pick at No. 2 overall after Austin FC took midfielder Daniel Pereira instead of the national media’s consensus No. 1 projected pick, Philip Mayaka, a midfielder out of Clemson. Nijkamp said Mayaka and Pereira were also in Cincinnati’s top three, but Harris was the player they rated highest.

“Up front there is absolutely a need and especially with players with pace, with directness, going into the box, going to the goal and scoring goals, again, on a completely different level, but with youngsters going to a certain system, this is the draft system,” Nijkamp said when asked if they considered Mayaka at that spot. “You can see these kinds of players also going through pathway of Academy and there is a moment they have to show themselves on the MLS level, and I think Calvin is a player who can do it. So he was for us, our No. 1 pick. Yes, Mayaka was also there, but we have Frankie (Amaya), we have (Kamohelo) Mokotjo, we have Haris Medunjanin, so … Calvin Harris was absolutely our first pick, on top of our list.”

Harris, a Generation Adidas player who won’t count against the team’s salary budget, also will take part in the preseason, but Nijkamp confirmed that the team’s final two picks — University of Dayton midfielder Jonas Fjeldberg (54th overall) and Hofstra forward Matthew Vowinkel (No. 56) — will finish play the college spring season before potentially joining FCC.

Nijkamp told Queen City Press the club plans to join the newly forming MLS 2 league this year, if possible amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The new league has been referred to as a U-23 developmental stage to bridge the gap between the academies and first teams, but can also serve as a place for players coming back from injuries to get competition.

FCC will keep a close eye on Fjeldberg and Vowinkel to see if they still show the qualities needed to transition with the club eventually.

“We will monitor them from there and see if they will get a trial later in the year when we start our second team,” Nijkamp said.

In the meantime, the focus remains on building a competitive first team.

FCC has long expressed the goal of fielding a fully matured team going into the West End Stadium in 2021, but the club finished last each of its first two seasons in MLS and enters its third season still managing financial setbacks of a global pandemic. Nijkamp said the goals remain the same despite those challenges.

“It’s absolutely our goal to be better, to be competitive, to play for a playoff position with a team who can really compete in in this league,” Nijkamp said. “Again, my takeaway from 2020 with all these challenges, we were competitive. We were not always lucky. We didn’t score enough goals, but we showed ourselves differently than it was in 2019, so we show progress. We didn’t show the progress in results, but we show progress in the way we want to play and the way we want to compete to our opponents. And in ’21, we have to go to the next step, and that is absolutely our goal. We are working hard to achieve that, but again, we cannot see the future. What we know now is April 3, first weekend of competition. We know there will be a moment this season we go into our beautiful new stadium, and there will be a roster who will achieve these goals. And I am convinced that we will do it, also with the challenges we have today.”

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