A Different Way of Building
If you're building a championship winning MLS side in the year 2020, conventional wisdom would say the majority of your team speaks Spanish, and most of your best players are from Latin America.
This is true of LAFC, LA Galaxy, and Atlanta United, the standard bearers for Major League Soccer at the moment. These teams have made high profile signings from Latin America (Carlos Vela, Chicarito), recruited famous South American managers (Tata Martino, Guillermo Barros Schelotto) and have heavily recruited south of the boarder. And it's having a trickle down effect.
Other teams looking to make a mark have also copied these moves by hiring some of the best mangers from LigaMX such as San Jose hiring Matias Almeyda (winner of three Mexican league titles, CONCACAF Champions League, and best CONCACAF manager in 2018) and Inter Miami hiring Diego Alonso (winner of one Mexican league title, runner up in another, third place in the Club World Cup, and winner of the CONCACAF Champions League).
And the storyline of the 2019-2020 offseason is the mass importation of Liga MX talent into MLS. Lucas Zelarayan to Columbus Crew, Luvas Cavallini to Vanouver Whitecaps, Alan Pulido to Kansas City, have all been club records. Throw in a few mod-season deals from last year like Gustavo Bou and Brian Fernandez and it's not hard to see the trend of record signings heading north.
So it's clear this is a model that MLS teams are starting to follow. Import some of the best talent from Latin American into the league, ideally when they're younger. These younger players offer the potential to then be sold on to Europe for a nice profit. And in MLS, finding ways to increase your salary budget is key to building better and better teams than the salary cap would often afford.
And that is what makes what FC Cincinnati is doing is so interesting. They're not really looking to Latin American for the next big FC Cincinnati signing. They're scouting and recruiting in Europe.
Between general manager Gerrard Njikamp and manager Ron Jans, they had a collective 0 years of experience in the US, let alone in all of the Americas, before joining the FC Cincinnati front office. The Dutch duo have years and years of experience in The Netherlands where they built teams to compete in the Eredivisie and to challenge for Champions League and Europe League spots. Their idea of a competitive roster is just different than what you might find with a Copa Libertadores finalist or Liga MX winner.
And they have built FC Cincinnati in this image. As I said on a recent episode of Knifey Lion Radio, Njikamp is building this team like a Champions League team would be built in The Netherlands. Young attacking talent, veteran experience on defense, and a variety of midfielders to adapt to any opponent is a winning formula. And since joining MLS, Njikamp has access to a war-chest he otherwise would not have had available to him at a mid-table Dutch club.
This departure from the new norm in MLS, recruiting in Europe for fringe players with all the talent in the world, gives FC Cincinnati a lane unto itself. Toronto FC is probably the closest example to this style of team building, though their front office lacks to personal Rolodex in Europe that Jans and Njikamp have amassed in their time. Given the speed in which record transfer signing Jurgen Locadia was recruited, it is clear there are immense tangible benefits to these personal connections.
The biggest question for Njikamp's roster building is can he navigate the horror that is MLS roster rules. And so far, he seems fully capable of doing just that. Given where the new CBA ended up, there is a lot more roster flexibility in 2020 and beyond than MLS teams have ever had. Shrewd moves like ditching Adi's contract have show not only the front office's ability to build a competent roster quickly, but their capacity to spend cash improving the roster.
The true test will come when Ron Jans is handed the keys to this roster come MLS's 2020 season. Everything looks great on paper, but it will be up to the team to perform to show if FC Cincinnati has blazed a new trail in MLS.