West End Caleb

If you’re as online as I am – and if you’re reading this, then you probably are – then you’ve heard recently about the saga of West Elm Caleb. If you’re in your 50s and you came here trying to find the website for The Cincinnati Post, then I’ll sum it up for you: “West Elm Caleb” is a 20-something guy who is rather active in dating apps. A few women that he briefly dated found each other on TikTok (possibly due to all having their numbers saved in Caleb’s phone, causing the TikTok algorithm to link them together), complained about him being a bad boyfriend, and then their complaints went viral.

The whole thing is overblown, and Caleb’s casual dating habits don’t seem abnormal for guys in their 20s, but if there’s a decent point somewhere in there it’s this: He acted dishonestly by starting off with “love bombing” – acting very affectionate and attentive early in the relationship – and then “ghosting” – ending a relationship simply by cutting off contact. The argument goes that he misled these women by seeming to be very into them when he was, in fact, not.

I suppose the whole thing is a reminder to all of us to be mindful of the messages that we send, but also to be careful about what assumptions we make. Sure, he probably shouldn’t have acted more into the relationship than he was, but also you probably shouldn’t assume someone is your boyfriend unless he explicitly says so. Which requires asking the question. If you ask the question, then he is on the spot. He has the choice to lie, or not, and then he is accountable for that choice.

FC is a lot like a bad boyfriend. Every year, the results on the field – the main thing that we want from the team – are terrible. And every year, we get an apology letter or something else from ownership saying, "I know I messed up, give me another chance." 

FCC in a relationship

We're frequently assured that ownership is committed to turning the product around. But, is it? Sure, it spent the money to buy out Kamohelo Mokotjo, but that was table stakes. We still have only two true DPs, we might be using only two of the U22 slots (depending on how Vallecilla is classified), there are rumors that the developmental “2” team will be delayed a year, and we still don’t have a single defensive midfielder on the roster. Do not tell me you’re doing “everything” when we can see that you are not.

But OK, the current roster problems can be chalked up to the previous regime – the bad contracts signed by Nijkamp – but following the thread of that excuse leads us to the base question of who hired Nijkamp in the first place. The same is true with the “short runway” that Jeff Berding likes to bring up – it’s only short because ownership decided to make it short.

FC wanted to be an MLS franchise from day one. If ownership were truly doing everything in its power to build a winning product, then it would have been accumulating proven MLS experience on the soccer side from the start. Nashville, for example, hired Gary Smith – an MLS Cup-winning coach – in 2018, and he coached two seasons in USL. On the other hand, FC’s first head coach in MLS was Alan Koch, whose prior experience was coaching a Canadian Division II college followed by two seasons coaching Vancouver’s reserve team. Then, when Koch was fired, the team had to scramble and hire Ron Jans as a stopgap, and then hire Jaap Stam in a hurry after Jans was fired. Sure, you can say that they had no choice but to fire Koch, and that no one could have predicted the circumstances around Jans’s departure, but then that leaves the question of why they didn’t just hire a good manager in the first place. (By all appearances, Smith was available when Koch was hired.) 

Similarly, there was nothing preventing them from spending their time in USL networking with MLS front office people and identifying a “Chris Albright type” ready to navigate MLS roster rules from day one. Instead, we signed bad players under Koch and then hired Nijkamp to sign both bad and expensive players. Again, you can make excuses here: Nijkamp came highly recommended, and obviously once he was hired it would have been improper for Berding to be second-guessing him the whole time. But also, again, we work back to the question of why there wasn’t a competent person in the front office when the team was still in USL.

I acknowledge that FC had a technical director in 2018 in Luke Sassano, and that Sassano worked on deals for the likes of Fabian Johnson and Matias Fernandez, but he was blocked. But I would point out that Sassano had never done the job in MLS, and that these “near misses” have not done anything in professional soccer since they were linked to FC. So missing out on those signings might actually have been for the best, which brings us back to my question: Why wasn’t there anyone there who knew what they were doing?

Doing everything to compete in MLS would have included, perhaps, building an extensive scouting team in advance. But it’s not even clear that we have that right now. The technical staff page for Columbus Crew includes a head coach, general manager, director of scouting and player recruitment, a vice president of soccer administration, a technical director, two assistant GMs, and four assistant coaches. Did Nijkamp have an assistant general manager? Even now, FC’s website doesn’t list a single assistant GM or technical director, and one of our listed scouts does Serie A analysis for Paramount+. (I understand that Kyle McCarthy is reported to be the team’s technical director, but he’s not on the website and as far as I can tell the team has never publicly confirmed it for some reason.)

I can't help but conclude that Berding and the rest didn’t start even contemplating the possibility that they might have to field an MLS team until they were officially awarded an MLS franchise, and haven’t had the staff that an MLS team requires until arguably this year. That is unacceptable. What were they doing?

Now, to be fair, there might be a good explanation for all of this. Maybe they approached Gary Smith and he turned them down. Maybe they made multiple overtures to domestic general manager candidates in 2017 and 2018 and no one wanted to come to Cincinnati. But who could know? All I have from the team is a 90-minute commercial that pretends history ended when Kendall Waston scored against Portland. I’m not going to give them the benefit of the doubt when the doubt only exists because the team refuses to explain itself.

Bad boyfriends always tell you they’ve learned their lesson. But there’s no reason to believe them unless they demonstrate that they understand what they did wrong and provide a good reason to believe that they will be different in the future. So what do I want from FC? Two things: Transparency and humility. Transparency, in letting us in on the process that brought us to where we are, and humility, in the people responsible for this mess actually owning up to their mistakes in a meaningful way. If we get those things, then we can knowledgeably accept that the team needs still more time, and we have a reason to justify further patience. As it stands, believing the empty promises just sets us up for more heartbreak. (Also, on a separate note, give us more of those mic’d up videos. I don’t count them as “transparent,” as they’re obviously heavily edited, but letting us actually see the guys work is nice.)

I want to be clear that I'm not all doom and gloom. I do think that Albright and Noonan are showing some promise, and there are reasons to be optimistic about the team going into the season. But we've also been here before. Every new hire, every big signing was identified as what we needed to finally compete. Now, there needs to be a better explanation put forward about why the team has moved past whatever was wrong in the last three seasons, and "there are different guys now" isn't enough.

Last summer (and he’s probably tired of hearing about it), Berding offered ESPN a tone-deaf metaphor about Mt. Everest. But getting to MLS without setting up any of the foundation is kind of like trying to climb Everest but failing to pack half of your supplies. It’s a lot less impressive getting to the top when you got there only by hogging all the oxygen and letting half your group die of exposure, and I wouldn’t exactly be bragging about it.