National Writer: Charles Boehm

FC Cincinnati reload after Supporters' Shield: "We're going to evolve"

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FC Cincinnati were far and away Major League Soccer’s top team in the 2023 regular season and have the Supporters’ Shield that proves it.

Yet it’s Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami CF who hold the kind of global cachet that prompts a round-the-world preseason exhibition tour, despite the Herons finishing 35 points and 26 standings places below FCC in the overall table.

That’s the reality of contemporary soccer stardom, and the Orange & Blue don’t seem to feel too bad about it.

“We're going to do a tour of the Midwest,” deadpanned Cincy general manager Chris Albright to MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “We’re going to hit St. Louis, Dayton. It’s going to be beautiful.”

Ins & outs

Even with tongue in cheek, there’s a kernel of truth in there, considering the blue-collar identity of both the club and its city. While Miami added yet another star name this winter in Messi BFF Luis Suárez, FCC sold their top striker, 2022 Best XI honoree Brandon Vazquez, to CF Monterrey. They bid farewell to several other key players (including Yerson Mosquera, Santiago Arias, Junior Moreno and Dominique Badji), shopping for their replacements in the Czech first division (new central midfielder Pavel Bucha) and the MLS free-agent market (Miles Robinson and Corey Baird).

“We had some pretty, I would say, high-profile departures, guys that contributed a lot for us last year,” said Albright of his busy offseason. “That being said, I think we've done a good job of addressing those holes.

“We have a core in place where we're going to be able to win a lot of games. It's just we're going to evolve a bit and it's going to perhaps look a little different.”

The Knifey Lions expected to lose yet another key figure last month, and may yet still: livewire left wingback Álvaro Barreal. The 2023 MLS All-Star’s eagerness to test himself in Europe is evident, and largely supported by his club, hence his excused absence from Cincy’s preseason camps to date.

But with no acceptable bids lodged ahead of the winter windows in most European leagues closing at the end of January, the Argentine is expected to join his FCC teammates in Clearwater, Florida in the coming days.

“As of now Álvaro will be in with the group, coming this weekend,” said Albright. “He was handling some immigration issues, and there was an anticipation that we were going to sell him, and that hasn't materialized to the level that was sufficient enough to do so. So obviously a player that was really important to our group and we’ll welcome him back with open arms and continue to win games with Álvaro.

“His desire, as many players do, remains to play overseas in Europe. And we'll look to the summer window to perhaps do that, or there's still some markets that are open here for the next month. So that one's a bit fluid still.”

Robinson's impact

Albright readily acknowledges that even Cincy’s biggest capture of the offseason may not be around for all that long. Robinson is widely regarded as one of MLS’s elite center backs but still aspires to cross the Atlantic, and part of FCC’s pitch to the defender was an unusually short contract for someone of his caliber, a ‘1+1’ deal that means he could move on in a year, perhaps even less.

In the meantime, Robinson’s presence alongside ‘23 Defender of the Year Matt Miazga, elite defensive midfielder Obinna Nwobodo, rising goalkeeper Roman Celentano and the rest of the Garys’ defensive corps looks like the top back line in the league.

“Probably the most coveted free agent. We saw a real fit in how we want to play, in Miles as a person, as a character, fitting into our group,” said Albright of the US international. “Ultimately, Miles has a goal of playing overseas, still, at the highest level and that's great. And our pitch was that we provide the best environment for him to continue to get better.

“Our coaching staff’s done a tremendous job with the players we've signed and players that we've inherited in getting the most out of those players. And I think that was noticed by Miles and his representation. [Assistant coach] Kenny Arena does an outstanding job with our center backs and makes those guys better, and I think Miles wants to start in a World Cup and wants to go play overseas, and he saw this as, while he had some great years in Atlanta and they had a lot of success there, I think he maybe needed a change of scenery, and we were his destination of choice, thankfully.”

Climbing to the top of MLS is difficult. History suggests staying there is even harder, and Albright – much like his counterparts at LAFC, Philadelphia Union and Seattle Sounders FC have already experienced – can tell you a little bit about why.

“Success in a cap league is often difficult to deal with,” explained the 2023 MLS Sporting Executive of the Year. “For instance, we sell Brandon for the money that we sold him for [a reported $7.5 million plus incentives and sell-ons], and I don't really have any player designation to use that money on to go find a replacement.

“MLS is very complex when it comes to buying and selling players, just because you can't just take the funds that you accrued from a sale and go out and use them. Sometimes you can, right? Sell a DP, you go get a DP. And so yeah, obviously with that success, there's been a bigger spotlight on FC Cincinnati and our players and with that comes more opportunities for them, it comes with guys asking for more money. And so yes, the squad, how you evolve from a successful year like we have had, and the guys in Philly and LA and teams that have had a lot of success in the last few years have dealt with the same thing: You just get squeezed in a cap league.”

New opportunity

Another tangible stress point along those lines, albeit also a massive opportunity, is participation in continental competition, Cincy’s first-ever such expedition. The Orange & Blue open their Concacaf Champions Cup campaign with a trip to Jamaica to face upstarts Cavalier FC later this month, and if they survive that two-legged test, they’ll likely meet Vazquez and Monterrey in the Round of 16.

Albright says CCC didn’t drastically change his approach to squad building, aside from underlining the value of an established roster core and game model, and the organizational culture to mobilize it towards grinding out results.

“I like to have teams that can win multiple ways and I still think we'll be able to do that. Miles is a gigantic addition to an already good defensive group,” he noted. “In our league, that's important with the different environments and time zones and everything that we deal with, to kind of have that flexibility in how you compete.”

He notes that some of his team’s most important members, including Nwobodo, Miazga, Luciano Acosta and Aaron Boupendza, arrived after the season had already started, and hinted that such might be the case again this year.

“We're still working to make an addition or additions. Ultimately that's what we've done the last couple of years,” he said. “The best players, the best deals, often take the longest time and so we're going to continue to be patient to continue to add to that group. But right now I do feel confident in the group we have right now to be able to weather that early rhythm of a lot of games.

“Getting good players to come to our league is still the hardest thing to do in my job. So you want to just be able to give the coaching staff as much depth as possible. I think that's what gave us the ability to win a supporters shield last year."

Making the pitch

Self-effacing Rust Belt jokes aside, Cincy does have plenty to offer new recruits, from the chance to contend for trophies on multiple fronts to some of the best infrastructure in MLS, thanks to their committed, well-heeled ownership group. Albright and head coach Pat Noonan also strive to cultivate a reputation for player care, no doubt a factor in how situations like Barreal’s are managed.

Those who visit themselves to witness all that firsthand are likely to be won over.

“When we can get guys to come to Cincy on a visit, our stadium and our training facility, it speaks for itself. I mean, it truly is a world-class building. And I think we we take really good care of guys, that's really important to myself and Pat,” said Albright.

“When you marry those things and have success and the facilities and try to really take care of these guys, I'd like to think it's a desirable place to play. I think you look at Miles and Corey, with free agency becoming a more powerful tool to build a roster, those guys had a choice, right? They could have gone a lot of places and chose Cincinnati. So I'd like to think that's a pretty good indicator.”