How did Jaap Stam's FC Cincinnati beat Europe's elite clubs to sign $13m Brazilian wonderkid Brenner?

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The moment reports started emerging linking FC Cincinnati to Brenner, the collective reaction was one of incredulity. 

Brenner, the 21-year-old Brazilian striker, had long been a target of some of the world's top clubs. He'd been compared to Gabriel Jesus and been linked to the likes of Juventus, Arsenal and AC Milan.

He'd scored 21 goals in his last 39 appearances for Sao Paulo, including 13 during a stunning, one-month, 11-game blitz through October and November. As a result, Sao Paulo were reportedly demanding €50 million (£45m/$60m) for his services.

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Brenner, by all accounts, is a player destined for big things.

A move to Cincinnati, then, appeared to make no sense. The club is a relative newcomer to MLS, having only made the leap to the American top division two seasons ago and, unlike say Los Angeles, New York or Miami, Cincinnati certainly isn't seen as a luxurious landing spot for foreign talent.

On the field, the club has struggled over the last two years, having gone through four head coaches while scoring a league-worst 12 goals in 23 games last season.

What could possibly convince one of Brazil's brighter young talents that his career would be best served by moving to a city best known for Skyline Chili – not soccer success?

Well, those reports, as far-fetched as they seemed, came true. Brenner is, in fact, bound for Cincinnati in what can certainly be seen as the latest landmark signing from an MLS club.

Cincinnati has landed a special one, a player that many believe could follow in the footsteps of Miguel Almiron and Alphonso Davies in commanding a massive transfer fee from Europe when that time is right.

So, how did FC Cincy pull off one of the most ambitious MLS signings in history? For starters, they "put the money on the table", as general manager Gerard Nijkamp puts it, at a time when other clubs simply could not.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact finances in leagues all over the world, clubs are less willing to pay big money for soon-to-be-established talent, leaving players like Brenner priced out of moves that would have been seen as normal in years past.

Brenner Sao Paulo FC Cincinnati GFX
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FC Cincy paid a reported $13m (£9.4m) for the Brazilian, with incentives meaning that total could jump even higher. It's already the third-largest transfer fee in MLS history, behind only the moves to bring Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez and Ezequiel Barco to Atlanta United.

"These are difficult times for clubs. They're not so proactive in signing new players because there is some uncertainty still in the world," Nijkamp said.

"Maybe that gives us the opportunity to get a high-profile player that, in a normal world, would be more difficult for a club like FC Cincinnati or any other club in MLS."

He added: "Normally, these kinds of talents usually go directly to Europe. Now, he’s come to our club. We put up the investment, we put the money on the table."

But money alone could not convince a player that this decision was the right one. If pandemic finances were a concern, Brenner could have simply waited or made a move to a more proven landing spot.

For Brenner to move to FC Cincinnati, though, he had to be convinced that the club could be a stepping stone and provide him with a big move before an even bigger move.

To do that, FC Cincy pointed to players like Almiron and Davies, who have gone on to command massive transfer fees with their own moves to Europe. Or pointed to the likes of Bryan Reynolds, Zack Steffen, Tyler Adams and Reggie Cannon as evidence that players that can grow up in this league and then continue on abroad.

But Brenner was also convinced by a former teammate: Auro Jr., currently of Toronto FC. Auro, who played with Brenner at Sao Paulo and joined TFC in 2018, is one of 18 Brazilians that featured in MLS in 2020.

"The United States gives a lot of shine in my eyes," Brenner said. "When the offer came, I couldn’t resist. As soon as I heard about the project from a call with [director of scouting and player recruitment Hunter Freeman] and saw all the facilities, from that day on, I started searching for videos of the club and the fans. That really surprised me and I had no doubts."

Brenner Sao Paulo GFX

With this move, the club is betting on Brenner becoming the league's next superstar, and there's reason to believe he could be. He shone in the Brazilian league and, to put it frankly, Juventus and Arsenal wouldn't be interested in a player if he wasn't any good.

But that's only one half of it. With this move, Brenner is also betting heavily on Cincinnati to be the club that can get him to where he wants to be, which is, ultimately, to one of Europe's top teams.

"We got the information about Brenner," Nijkamp said, "and there was a possibility to get him to our club. The screening process was there, in terms of convincing the organization and ownership, but also going into conversations with Brenner and his management to convince him that FC Cincinnati can be the next step in his career... We can be the bridge for going to Europe.

"A player like Brenner is not going directly to Europe, but going to FC Cincinnati, taking his next step, being successful, raising the upside for us as a club, upgrading our soccer ecosystem inside the club, and then we can reinvest the revenues we, hopefully, get in the future."

Still, the Brenner move is the latest in what has now become a long line of ambitious pushes from the team. 

Last season, the club hired former AC Milan and Manchester United defender Jaap Stam as head coach. The club also signed Brighton's Jurgen Locadia on an initial loan, although his future with the club remains relatively uncertain.

And, throughout the winter, the club was linked heavily with former Atalanta star Alejandro 'Papu' Gomez, one of the best-producing attacking midfielders in Europe. In the end, Gomez opted to remain in Europe by joining Sevilla, but the message was clear: FC Cincinnati won't be messing around in 2021.

Despite missing out on Gomez and despite coughing up a massive fee to bring in Brenner, the club is still in the market, with Nijkamp saying he's still looking to bring in a top-level number 10.

"There was another rumor a few weeks ago that we wanted to bring in a player with a great track record in Europe," Nijkamp said. "He decided to stay in Europe and play for another big club, a Champions League club. He was a guy who was a senior player.

"If you go into my hat, we maybe want to see if we can find a number 10 of that experience to balance the young and senior players in the team."

Even if Cincy heads into the 2021 season with the roster as assembled, they'll command plenty of attention. Brenner's signing will be one of the storylines of the MLS season as many all over the world will look on to see if the young forward sinks or swims.

Brenner, after all, could be MLS' next game changer, the next Almiron or Davies to use the league as a launchpad. He could be a player that furthers the league's reputation worldwide, as MLS continues to mold itself into a league that wants to find, sign, develop and sell young talent.

But that's the macro view, the big picture, and Nijkamp isn't too worried about all that. The club has already completed one of the biggest signings in MLS history, and so he has no interest in musing about what it means for everyone else.

"For everyone who loves the game, it must be a happy day that we are able to bring these kinds of players into MLS and especially of course for our FC Cincinnati fans," he said.

"Is it a statement or whatever it is? I have to say I don’t care. I want to have the best players in our club to be successful and to win."

If Brenner is successful and if FC Cincy does win, if this multimillion-dollar transfer pays off for all involved, then this will go down as a landmark deal for the club, the league and, perhaps most importantly, Brenner himself.

And, if all goes to plan, perhaps those less familiar with Cincinnati will come to know the city for more than Skyline Chili, but rather as the place where Brenner continued his path towards the top.