The Kenny Saief experiment has run its course.
FC Cincinnati have found the going difficult following a bright start to life in Major League Soccer, and Kenny Saief’s failure to make a lasting impact is one of the more disappointing storylines for a team struggling to tread water. While many questioned the club’s roster construction ahead of their inaugural season, tremendous home support and three positive results in the month of March had Cincy looking like the league’s latest expansion success story.
Since then, the Orange and Blue produced just one win in 12 contests and sit dead last in the league with 11 points taken from 16 matches. There’s plenty of blame to go around for their current situation, but an inability to find the back of the net has been the most troubling development through the first half of the campaign.
Nine appearances and just over three months since Saief's arrival, it appears the attack will be losing one piece as his time in southwestern Ohio is coming to an end sooner rather than later. On Tuesday The Athletic broke the news that Saief is set to conclude his loan spell two weeks before the previously agreed upon date of July 7. His output of one goal and two assists comes as a letdown given the high hopes the club had for a player with considerable experience in Europe.
Saief joined FC Cincinnati on a short-term loan deal on March 6 from Belgian outfit R.S.C. Anderlecht, with the club having the option to make the transfer permanent. Many thought he could transform a team lacking offensive playmakers and his first moments on the pitch did nothing to dispel that notion.
The league’s newest franchise surprised onlookers when they visited the cauldron of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and held the defending champions to a 1-1 draw. Saief made his debut in that match and it took less than a quarter of an hour to make his presence felt. His perfectly weighted ball sliced open the Atlanta back line and found a streaking Roland Lamah, who calmly finished the equalizer with less than five minutes remaining.
Saief earned MLS Team of the Week honors the following week with a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win at the New England Revolution, and it appeared both he and the Orange and Blue would continue soaring. Fast-forward a bit, and a few lackluster performances were followed by a loss of his starting role and a lingering hamstring issue.
In late May he aired his mounting frustration at a lack of playing time under interim head coach Yoann Damet.
“I felt the past week I trained every day, which (some of) the other guys didn’t train the full days, and it’s not fair,” Saief told The Athletic’s Laura Pfahler. “I think the staff should have let me start above them, but I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Whoever plays we should support them.”
Saief’s start against San Jose and 25 minutes in the second half against Orlando two weeks later are his only two appearances since the start of May. According to the club, Saief was left off the 18-man roster later in the month due to a hamstring concern and he has not touched the pitch since.
So, where did it go wrong for the Israeli-American?
It can be difficult to put a finger on why exactly a talented player doesn’t pan out in a certain environment, but coaching uncertainty, injuries, as well as lineup and formation changes, are all factors in this instance.
From the outset, manager Alan Koch’s penchant for sitting deep and playing on the counter meant that Saief’s skill set might not be utilized to its full capacity. Furthermore, he found himself among several players lining up away from their typical positions on numerous occasions, something that forward Fanendo Adi took issue with as the losses began to accumulate.
“We have quality players, good players enough. Obviously, we’re playing a lot of players out of position and this is something we need to identify,” Adi said following a May 4 loss to San Jose. “We can’t play guys out of position and expect them to be excellent in those positions where they don’t play.
As the club prepares for Saief’s departure, things are looking up. They recently hired Gerard Nikjamp from Dutch club PEC Zwolle to serve as general manager and transform operations. Furthermore, their 2-1 Open Cup victory over former USL rivals Louisville City FC on Wednesday provided a taste of the on-field success supporters have been craving.
That triumph, combined with Nijkamp’s arrival and an impending coaching hire, just might rejuvenate the club and put them on the road to better days.