With its fifth and final pick of the 2018 MLS Expansion Draft, FC Cincinnati selected New York Red Bulls defender Hassan Ndam. For RBNY fans - and one suspects RBNY Sporting Director Denis Hamlett - it was a late blow to the hope that the Red Bulls might get out of the Expansion Draft without losing any players.
FCC’s first four picks - Darren Mattocks, Kei Kamara (instantly flipped out to Colorado Rapids for an international roster slot), Roland Lamah, and Eric Alexander (hi, Eric!) - were all MLS-experienced, start-now acquisitions. Ndam is a 20-year-old with a total of two MLS appearances and one start in two seasons.
But he has all the traditional tools of a quality center-back , and he has been applying those tools mostly in USL for the last two years. Ultimately, FCC head coach Alan Koch had apparently seen too much of Ndam up close in USL to pass up the chance to sign him to his team’s inaugural MLS roster. As he told mlssoccer.com’s Susannah Collins during the league’s broadcast of the draft:
I’ve coached against him. I’ve seen what he’s capable of doing. Obviously doing it in the USL is completely different than doing it in MLS - but he’s a young player, he’s a player who’s got all sorts of upside. And we think he’s capable of coming into our environment, competing right away. I’m excited to work with him, push him and help him achieve his goals.
It likely didn’t help RBNY’s cause that Ndam was part of the reason FC Cincinnati couldn’t get on the score sheet in its last competitive appearance of 2018: the team’s 1-0 loss in the USL playoffs to NYRB II.
The Red Bulls may have had early warning that they were losing Ndam to Cincy - MSG’s “Red Bulls Insider”, Kristian Dyer got advance word that the young defender was on FCC’s draft-day radar:
Hearing that there is a strong likelihood that #FCCincy targets #RBNY centerback @Hassanndam47 in the upcoming expansion draft.— Kristian Dyer (@KristianRDyer) December 11, 2018
Central defender is clearly MLS ready. I expect to see him in Europe in 2-3 years. Has all the tools.
In the short term, the loss of Ndam merely amplifies the urgency of what was already Denis Hamlett’s most obvious off-season priority: signing more center-backs.
The Red Bulls released five CBs at the end of 2018: Aurelien Collin, Fidel Escobar, Tim Parker, Kevin Politz, and Tommy Redding.
The club is making progress toward re-signing Parker - a key starter for the team in 2018 and beyond, assuming he does ultimately return to RBNY. The rest are not currently believed to be returning to the club: Escobar is a regular starter for Panama and needs to find a club that will give him more time than he will get stuck behind RBNY’s preferred CB tandem of Long and Parker; Collin spent most of the last two seasons either injured or on the bench; Politz did not apparently convince RBNY that he was going to be more than a competent USL center-back; Redding - a highly-rated US youth international while developing as Orlando City’s first-ever homegrown signing - looked out of his depth in his one and only appearance for RBNY.
So the primary task for this off-season was always going to be to find center-back depth. If he’d stuck with RBNY, Ndam would at least have taken the edge off that need for depth. He didn’t look necessarily ready to start in MLS right away next season, but he had made visible progress over the last two years - rewarded by a nomination for USL’s Young Player of the Year award this season, and a call-up to the Cameroon U-23 squad - and appeared to be on a promising trajectory.
RBNY’s current starting center-backs, Long and Parker, will both be 26 next season (Long is already; Parker will turn 26 in February). A 20-year-old prospect who might challenge them for minutes over the course of the next couple of seasons was a nice option to have on the roster - a project player with whom the Red Bulls could be patient, since the starting positions at CB are (we assume) safely filled for the next year or two, at least.
But RBNY already knows who it wants to start at CB next season and already knows it needs to sign more center-backs this off-season, and those two facts likely combined to force Hamlett’s hand and decide Ndam was the most expendable of the 12 players he most wanted to protect in an Expansion Draft that only allowed him to protect 11.
Indeed, the RBNY Sporting Director made that point ring loud and clear in the immediate aftermath of the draft by announcing the signing of defender Amro Tarek - center-back capable, at least on paper - from Orlando City. More defenders will surely follow.
If Hamlett’s decision over the last player to expose to the Expansion Draft came down to Ndam, teenage midfielder Cristian Casseres, or back-up goalkeeper Ryan Meara - well, it makes sense he decided to risk losing the guy who plays a position that would be getting reinforced before the sun set on Cincy’s decision day.
Mostly, therefore, what the Red Bulls lost when Cincinnati poached Ndam was the time and effort it had put into identifying him, recruiting him, and developing him this far in his career.
His official career history states he signed with RBNY from Rainbow FC Bamenda in Cameroon, his home country. But if Ndam has ever played a minute of professional soccer for Bamenda, Once A Metro would love to hear about it. Rainbow Sports Investments has brought a number of players into MLS, invariably transferred via the agency’s pro team in Bamenda - but that doesn’t necessarily mean every player that is transferred from Rainbow FC has actually played for Rainbow FC.
Ndam came to the Red Bulls from high-school soccer powerhouse Montverde Academy. He showed up in RBNY training back in the summer of 2015. He was a “mystery trialist” in 2016, as the team sought to keep its interest in a high-schooler away from prying eyes. He signed in January, 2017. It was a long and determined courtship, followed by two full seasons of training and development with the II team in USL, bolstered by occasional first-team appearances. It seemed to be going well, it’s unfortunate the work the Red Bulls and Ndam put in together will now - most likely - be to Cincinnati’s benefit.
The $50,000 allocation money MLS awards to clubs that lose players in the Expansion Draft isn’t nearly adequate compensation for RBNY’s investment in Ndam, but clearly Denis Hamlett decided there were 11 players who would cost the club a lot more to replace. he couldn’t save all the Red Bulls’ prospects, and the price of being MLS’ Best Team Ever with the club’s Deepest Squad Ever was perhaps predictable. It wasn’t inevitable Cincinnati would seek to augment its squad with a pick from RBNY’s vaunted talent pipeline, but it was not an improbable outcome of the Expansion Draft, regardless of who Hamlett sought to protect.
So long, Big Hass. Best of luck in Cincinnati.