Kenny Saief left Europe to head to MLS this past winter because he was enticed by FC Cincinnati’s long-term vision, but whether he sticks around to experience it all is uncertain.
In fact, his time with the club could come to an end before it ever really gets going.
FC Cincinnati acquired Saief as a key attacking piece in early March after the MLS season had begun, but his loan from Belgian side Anderlecht is not for the entirety of the MLS season, as is usually the case. Instead, the length of the loan is for four months, and Saief could leave as soon as this summer if terms between FC Cincinnati, Anderlecht, and himself are not agreed upon for a longer stay.
“It depends on how I feel, how they feel. It depends on how it goes,” Saief told SBI last week. “I want to also feel good about me staying here. Like I said, it was a good feeling for me to come here in the beginning. Even in January, I just didn’t want to leave Anderlecht to any other European team. It’s just something that I did (because I had) a good feeling.
“If I don’t have a good feeling, I’m not staying. If I do have a good feeling, I’ll stay.”
European teams are already expressing interest in the 25-year-old midfielder, according to Saief, but he believes discussions will not ramp up until after their respective season’s end and the summer transfer window comes into full focus in a few weeks’ time. He certainly is not ruling out a return back to the old continent, however, especially since he considers it to be a higher level, particularly tactically, than MLS.
Saief could very well stay put, though. While he is still acclimating to his new surroundings and teammates in Cincinnati, the left-footed attacker said he has felt welcome in the locker room since the first week he arrived and been left impressed by the incredible fan support. What’s more, is that he is getting the steady dose of starts that largely evaded him during the first half of Anderlecht’s season.
“My intention here is to play and my point is that I always play,” Saief said when asked why he chose to leave Europe. “I don’t want to be in a situation where my statistic goes down without playing. I just want to keep at the same level. (At Anderlecht) I was coming in for 10 minutes, 15 minutes. I just want to play like I used to do before.
“Doesn’t matter if it’s a big team like Anderlecht or it’s a smaller team in Cincinnati. I wanted to play in this period and this was the right move for me to do what I had to do: playing and getting my minutes back and getting my feeling back. Whether I stay here or I move to another team, I’ll be in good condition.”
How FC Cincinnati can sign Saief to a more permanent deal is to be determined. The club used up a lot of its Targeted and General Allocation Money on other acquisitions this past winter while building the roster, so it seems options in that regard are limited. Extending the loan could be a possibility, but that could be tricky if other European suitors come calling.
Another possibility would be to sign Saief as the team’s third Designated Player, though FC Cincinnati may be reluctant to use its final DP slot, or spend the type of money that comes with that, on a player that has not overly impressed or made a significant difference to this point. Saief has one goal and two assists in seven appearances.
That said, Saief has shown some encouraging flashes and FC Cincinnati admittedly needs all the attacking help it can get. The expansion club has been held scoreless in its last four matches, all losses, and in five of the last six, a poor run of form that has plummeted the team into 11th place in the Eastern Conference. The goals and assists are not coming in waves, but Saief is still one of the club’s more talented and experienced attacking pieces. Failing to keep him might only cause more harm to an already anemic attack.
“He’s a player that likes the ball, he likes to go 1-v-1, has good technique,” midfielder Allan Cruz told SBI. “He’s helped us a lot and he’s the No. 10 that we needed from the first game we played where I feel things got complicated for us. We needed a player that could get the ball and dictate the tempo, and I think Kenny has helped us a lot in that regard.”
Saief is, however, not a natural central playmaker. He prefers to play out wide — “I’m a winger. That’s my best position. Right, left, I’m a winger.” — because he feels more comfortable attacking from there. FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch has used Saief largely in the hole, though, tasking the 5-foot-11 veteran with pulling the strings in the middle of the park.
The transition in that spot has not been seamless. In addition to having to get reacquainted with playing centrally. he has also had to learn his new team’s and teammates’ styles of play. It has all been a work in progress, and one that is not close to completion.
“I used to play as a 10 also, but with a team that I used to play for a long time,” said Saief. “I knew my role there, I knew the players I’m playing with, which makes it more easy to deal when I’m playing a different position. It doesn’t matter, any position, when you’re used to playing with the same team for a long time, a system for a long time, you know already what you have to do when you change position.”
“It’s just new. It’s normal. Some guys will have more luck to do it better (from the start), some guys a bit less, so I’m in between.”
On top of all that, adding to Saief’s challenge is that he does not feel fully sharp yet. He said he feels physically fit, but that his inactivity at Anderlecht left him with rust that he is still trying to shake off with these steady string of games.
That work was put on hold on Wednesday, with Saief left off the FC Cincinnati squad for its loss to the Philadelphia Union while he recovers from a minor leg injury picked up in training.
If Saief regains his sharpness soon, FC Cincinnati and its impotent attack should only benefit. For how long, however, is the question.
“If I stay at FC Cincinnati, then the goal is to play in the playoffs,” said Saief. “That’s what I want. I don’t say for sure. That’s what I want, is to play in the playoffs. If not, to try and leave while the club is in a playoff spot.”