At first glance, Oct. 24, 2020 is a forgetful day in FC Cincinnati’s club history. Playing their penultimate match at Nippert Stadium, the Orange and Blue lost, 1-0, to Minnesota United FC after conceding a controversial goal in second-half stoppage time.
What should be remembered from the match, though, isn’t how the game was played, but who played in it.
FCC deployed three players 20 years old or younger – Frankie Amaya, Zico Bailey and Alvaro Barreal – for the first time in team history. On the bench, 17-year-old Beckham Sunderland, the club’s first MLS Homegrown Player, was a substitution away from debuting as a goalkeeper.
What’s memorable about the Minnesota match is that it’s one of Cincinnati’s first steps toward its ideal roster: a balance between young, developing players and proven, seasoned leaders guiding the way.
In its final USL Championship season in 2018, FCC’s youngest players were both 23. The current roster has nine players 22 or younger. And if the club signs MLS SuperDraft pick Avionne Flanagan to the first team, he’ll be the 10th player 22 or younger.
Entering 2021, FC Cincinnati’s roster includes a significant number of younger players, but more importantly, these players should provide meaningful contributions.
Amaya, who’s entering his third professional season, is only 20, but already has 40 career MLS appearances and will play a crucial role in the club’s midfield.
Bailey, whose role grew as the 2020 season progressed, enters 2021 in a positional battle with Saad Abdul-Salaam and Joseph-Claude Gyau.
Barreal offers an attacking spark from either wing, just like newly-acquired Ben Mines and Calvin Harris, who the club selected second overall in last month’s SuperDraft.
Throw in Brenner Souza da Silva, who’s reportedly the third-largest transfer signing in MLS history, and FCC have a healthy injection of young players who will feature regularly for head coach Jaap Stam.
If the club’s first two seasons in MLS showed glimpses of investing in youth development, 2021 could be a full-blown dive into playing young players at crucial moments. That’s a significant change, and one that General Manager Gerard Nijkamp welcomes.
“(Signing Brenner) shows a strong commitment from our ownership to invest in young players,” Nijkamp told reporters last week. “We have made it a priority to bring in young, talented players both domestically, but also internationally. Frankie Amaya, Zico Bailey, Alvaro Barreal, Calvin Harris, Ben Mines and also Brenner are examples.
“It takes patience, but building a young core, whether their long-term future is in Cincinnati or there are aspirations are to play overseas in the future, we’ll create a long-term sustainability in how we continue to develop our roster, from top to bottom.”
This is a trend that’s become a league-wide initiative as other MLS clubs have embraced signing Homegrown Players. In 2019, we ran a week-long series about the top academies around the league, and how the FC Cincinnati Academy is in the developmental stages of becoming a pipeline for local players to represent the Orange and Blue.
It’s critical that the club’s 2021 squad balances between young, upcoming players and more experienced ones. For example, Przemysław Tytoń and Haris Medunjanin can mentor Sunderland and Amaya, respectively.
For the first time in team history, FCC truly have a young core. This offseason, Nijkamp has grown that core by investing more funds into adding younger players.
Throughout 2020, Stam said he’ll use players who deserve minutes, reiterating the mantra of, “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
The upcoming season could be the moment when Cincinnati goes from being a club that wants to develop younger players, to a side that is doing so – and producing results along the way.
That would be a massive step forward for a young organization – especially since Oct. 24, 2020.