MLS Expansion

Sassano outlines vision for FC Cincinnati in extended interview

With success in USL both on the field and off the field where it has drawn massive crowds on a regular basis, FC Cincinnati is set to join MLS in 2019. Brian Sciaretta spoke with the club’s technical director Luke Sassano about the year ahead and his vision for the team’s future.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
July 11, 2018
5:00 AM
AT JUST 32 years old, Luke Sassano has transitioned from his playing career to the front office where he has worked his way up to being the technical director for FC Cincinnati, which will finish the season in USL and then start 2019 as an expansion team in MLS.

After a collegiate career with the University of California, Sassano played in MLS for the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City before his career ended in 2012 due to injuries. He then moved into the front office at the New York Cosmos as the Assistant Sporting Director where he helped the club become one of the best teams in the NASL. In March he was hired by FC Cincinnati as the sporting director.

With a lot of work to be done, ASN’s Brian Sciaretta spoke with the Orinda, California native about how Cincinnati’s transition is going as it prepares for MLS and what the club wants to have by way of an identity in the country’s highest division.

Sciaretta for ASN: After being named as an expansion team in MLS, FC Cincinnati is set to start in the league less than a year from now in 2019. How tough is it to get this team ready for a higher league in such a short period of time?

Sassano: It is definitely exciting to be part of a club like FCC with fanbase, the community, and our ties - what has been done in just a few years has really been incredible. I've watched from the outside when I was at the Cosmos and now to be an internal piece of it, it is cool to see how much a city and a club are pretty much intertwined. The support for the club is really incredible.

I would say it makes things ramped up. We know it is a short runway leading up to 2019. Having said that in terms of approaching transfer strategies and things involved in going into a league like MLS - with how it has evolved the past few years and the level of players coming in - obviously on the scouting side and at the macro level of the club, we will be expanding our scouting network and looking at players who wouldn't be attainable at the USL level. The good news is that we have structures in place and we have processes in place that will give us those types of avenues to recruit and go after those players that will help us on the field going into 2019.

The nature of this business 24/7 and you really have to be open towards evolving and improving. We've taken that to heart and with our club, we are looking internally. We are looking at guys who are currently on our USL roster that have come in and done a very good job - and how many of those players will make the transition for us next year. All those iterations of where we're going to be, what markets we're starting to hone in on, and what players are there after these next two windows will make up a big piece of our roster next year.

ASN: Some of the recent MLS expansion teams have come into the league making huge splashes with very impressive designated player signings? Atlanta United and LAFC in particular have been able to compete right away thanks to the big players they have brought in. What is Cincinnati’s DP strategy for its first year?

Sassano: Obviously there have been trends in MLS that we see have been successful and there is something good that we can take from that. But I think more specifically, we'll go into what makes sense for our market and our roster and our ownership.

I will say that we plan to be a team that is going to be very competitive on the field. Obviously easier said than done. But when we start moving towards the DP strategy, we are very fortunate that we have not only an ownership group that is committed to winning but we also have a fanbase that is committed to winning. What that affords us is the opportunity to go after very good players.

I think we have a very clear strategy of what kind of DP we want to bring in - more so one that is definitely going to help us on the field. I think we'll be able to have a combination of what type of money were going to have to go after a DP. I think we have an idea going into 2019 but we also have the flexibility with our ownership group that if there is a player we're thinking about who is not in the budget right now but makes sense, we're able to have that type of conversation. That is really all you can ask for - to have those types of resources that allow you to compete with the ever changing market.

You talk about Atlanta in terms of what they paid in transfer fees and bringing in young and exciting players, we definitely want to be a team that is young, hungry, and ambitious. But with that balance of veteran players on the field that can kind of make-up that backbone and culture within the group. I think bringing in a DP in a good age, and when I say good age I mean 26-29, is also something that we're looking at - along with bringing in a young DP who is somebody who is young and talented and who can grow within the group while also making a splash on the field.

I think it goes to the right player and the right situation. Seven months away from the opening kick, we're very clear in our mind how this is going to look but in this business you might get an opportunity at the last second where all of a sudden you get a player who you thought wasn't available is now available. You have to make a quick decision. We have targets in mind. We would like to have a DP to start the season but you want to have the right player first. We've had good conversations.

ASN: Aside from designated players, we’ve also seen other teams like your former club, the New York Red Bulls, have tremendous success creating a pipeline through an academy, a USL team, and homegrown contracts that creates a steady flow of quality local players. How far along is Cincinnati in planning an academy that can start this pipeline? Is Cincinnati a market that ripe for local talent?

Sassano: I think every market is different. I think the saturation of talent in bigger cities is going to be stronger. I will say that there is a good footprint in Cincinnati with what existing youth teams have already done and I think it’s our responsibility as a professional club coming in to establish our identity throughout the community and work on grassroots programs from the very younger ages so that over the next five to seven years you see that those kids are starting to grow with the game and understand the game in Cincinnati that are now going to be moving up into our academy.

It’s going to be a process for sure. We don’t have an academy right now. We definitely have plans to bring in certain age groups that we’re working through right now, hiring an academy director. We’ve had really good conversations internally and also externally. With how the landscape of youth development in the U.S. is evolving and changing, it is important for us to be on the cusp of that. Having things organically go forward as we start to make these decisions that are going to impact our club, not just in the next one to three years, but in the long term.

We’re very hopeful and confident that we’ll put in the right framework that is going to allow for the development of players in Cincinnati and also allow us to be a reference point - to be a club that attracts top young players from Cincinnati but also develops top young players from Cincinnati. Working with our local youth clubs, we want to continue to raise the bar and the level of expectation.

To have the support and resources of our ownership to invest in youth development is huge. It’s also a business at the end of the day. You want to be able to develop players you can count on with your first team – not just for roster flexibility with being a homegrown player but also in terms of investment to bring a player up that knows the identity of the club, has been around the first team and the coaching staff – that is a much lower risk than maybe bringing someone in at a higher price point.

ASN: While FC Cincinnati is leaving USL, are there any plans to create its own reserve team that will compete in either USL or USL III?

Sassano: I would say that it’s all in discussions right now. Certain points that we value right now in terms of player development. It’s more managing what it looks like for us. With USL III coming in right now, we’re looking at the development of the player and how does that go? You have to ask questions. Is it an important part of the development process for a 16 year old to be playing against a 27 year old in the USL division 2?

Or with USL III coming out, maybe those clubs have different investment strategy and those clubs are a little bit younger? Is that better for the development of a 16 year old? We are talking internally about what is best for us.

ASN: We have also seen a lot of new MLS teams be able to be very competitive in their inaugural years. Atlanta made the playoffs in year one and is now maybe the best team in the league. LAFC looks like a safe bet to be in the playoffs. NYCFC made it in year two. Is the belief in Cincinnati that this team can be in the playoffs in year one?

Sassano: I think with my competitive nature and seeing the culture that has already been established among everyone working for the organization, those are our ambitions, for sure. It is attainable. There are expansion teams that have done it. But there are also expansion teams that have had their own struggles. It is important for us to learn from certain challenges that other teams have had to go through and use that as a building block for both sides of the equation.

ASN: You are only 32 years old and after your career ended abruptly in 2012, you made a quick turnaround to the front office. How tough has the quick climb been for you? What allowed you to get to where you are right now at such a young age?

Sassano: I’ve been very fortunate to have people who have mentored me as I’ve gotten into this side of the game early on. When I had to retire from Sporting Kansas City due to injuries and I was fortunate to know Gio [Savarese] and Eric Stover who brought me into the project in New York to learn at a young age that making that transition from the player mentality to that front office mentality is a bit different.

Luckily I had six years in that environment where certain things that maybe I was doing in the beginning but I got to learn and to grow. But I am learning and growing every day. Going through this process, the most important thing I’ve learned from Gio is to be transparent and be honest with players. Being a former player, you understand that in the end it is a business but there is a way to do things the right way and a way to do things the wrong way.

Every day is a learning environment for me and I am always asking questions but I am also being true to how I feel, how I see the game, and my opinion. People are going to disagree. That is the nature of the business and you’re not going to get every decision right and you have to be willing to accept responsibility for that.

ASN: This is a broad question but in light of the U.S. national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, questions were asked about how MLS could do better to help with player development for American players and finding ways to give more American players minutes. When looking at the league now, some teams develop domestic players and give minutes to domestic players at a much higher rate than other teams. Where do you see Cincinnati fitting in on that spectrum?

Sassano: I think whenever your national team doesn’t make the biggest stage, it’s tough. We should be there. I think it requires everybody – not just from the federation level but on the professional level – to look about how we can get better. You do have to look at from the club perspective as well. In being a part of a club, you have to look at how investment is in the best interest of the club. Investing in youth development at the club development will help, as a subsequent part of it, the national team.

Each club has owners that have their own investment strategies and are competitive to win games. Some other leagues have done it where you have regulations from federations where you have to have a certain number of players under 23 or a certain number of domestic players on your roster. But here, each club can build a team their own way and that is their own prerogative.

For us, it’s going to be a piece of the fabric. We want to develop our own players and have players that come through the pipeline that are having an impact on the field. Historically, you look around MLS and you see certain teams that have done that better than others and other teams where that is just not in their roster building strategy.

I can only comment on us and for us we want to have players that come through our own pipeline but it is important building things within our community. We want to be a reference point within the American soccer landscape of having one of the top academies. That’s our overarching goal – to be that academy which people point to as having done things the right way. When a player goes through our system and maybe they don’t’ have what it takes to reach the first team, they will still have opportunities to go to other places.

That other caveat of this is that players develop at different ages. And college is very important to that fabric. Sometimes you need to go to college to develop in certain social aspects of the game, off the field with maturity, or maybe they go and they have a coach who gives them new ideas.

I think it is important for us as a soccer community to just embrace the American mentality and the American spirit in terms of our structure being different from most of the rest of the world. It is also important for us to realize that we have to look internally about how we can continue to develop to American players with embodiment of what an American player is – not just at the top level but all the way down to the youth level.

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