The Fire officially announced Ousmane Doumbia would be filling the team’s third and final Designated Player (DP) spot, joining the team from sister club FC Lugano. The team confirmed Wednesday that the 31-year-old midfielder from Adjamé, Côte d’Ivoire is on loan from the Swiss club through the end of the year.
Here are answers to some key questions about that signing.
Why does that name seem familiar?
Ousmane is the younger brother of Seydou Doumbia, who retired last year after stints at a number of clubs in Switzerland alongside stops in Japan, Portugal, Spain, Italy, England, and Malta. He is best known, however, for his time at CSKA Moscow, which regularly featured the senior Doumbia in UEFA Champions League matches.
Why is Doumbia a Designated Player?
Doumbia joins Xherdan Shaqiri and Jairo Torres as Designated Players on the Fire roster. Although teams can spend as much as they want on a DP, they must have a minimum “budget hit,” including salary and transfer or loan fees, of $651,250 per year. Players whose budget charge is above that number must either be listed as Designated Players or have their budget hit “bought down” using allocation money.
Signing Doumbia to a short-term loan as a DP allows the team to preserve its limited amounts of allocation money, much of which can either be spent this year on other players this year – Fire Sporting Director Georg Heitz has indicated that the team is still looking for a striker – or next, as many of the funds roll over.
Overall, using the DP tag minimizes the budget implications of the player this year, while giving the team the most possible flexibility in the future, though it almost certainly means that the Fire will not be getting a superstar-caliber player in this summer transfer window, when more European talent is typically available.
What position does Doumbia play?
He is primarily a central defensive midfielder. The Fire have typically played a double pivot, where two defensive midfielders play essentially interchangeable positions, responsible for covering space between the attack and defensive line, breaking up counter attacks and at times playing forward to support the attack.
In some systems, Doumbia has played a slightly more offensive (#8) role at times, and he has also occasionally played as a center back.
Who else plays in those positions?
Currently, the Fire’s preferred starters in the defensive midfield are Gastón Giménez – himself formerly a DP – and Federico Navarro. We have also seen DP Jairo Torres and Fabian Herbers play there as well this season, and Mauricio Pineda has occasionally played in that role though it seems that Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas prefers to play him as a center back.
Though all of them have played competently so far this season, the quality of the defensive midfield did seem to dip when the preferred starters were out of the lineup. Torres and Herbers have spent most of their time playing in positions further up the field, and both of Herbers recent goals came with him starting as a winger.
What does Doumbia bring that the Fire roster lacks?
On one hand, you could argue that Doumbia brings little that the Fire roster doesn’t already have: The performance of the defensive midfield has been fine, and certainly hasn’t been the team’s greatest area of need. Giménez is capable of playing passes forward and jumpstarting the offense after a recovery – one of the main asks of the double pivot – while Navarro is tireless at closing down spaces and making recoveries on defense – the role’s other main responsibility.
On the other hand, Giménez is far from being a shutdown #6 defensive midfielder in the league, and Navarro’s offensive prowess hasn’t developed as the team hoped when they brought him here from South America, while Doumbia has shown competence at both parts of the job description.
So while the Fire have had both aspects of the double pivot covered, they’ve lacked a true box-to-box midfielder. This makes it easier for opposing teams to read the Fire’s plays in-game and simpler to develop effective game plans against the Fire.
To make the 4-2-3-1 – which was the team’s dominant system under Ezra Hendrickson and which Frank Klopas has frequently employed, including during the team’s most recent back-to-back road wins – work well, arguably box-to-box midfielders act as the heart of the squad, ensuring the team has sufficient numbers back on defense and thereby allowing offensive players to find and occupy space further up field, while also being responsible for getting the ball to their feet before opposition has a chance to reset on defense.
What is Doumbia’s game like?
From scouting reports and clips, Doumbia is good at reading opposing players and finding his way into passing lanes, closing down pockets of space before they open to stifle opposition offenses. He’s quick enough to make recoveries and is an adept tackler, good at getting cleanly winning the ball when your mind assumes he must have committed a foul.
Given his size – 5’8” and 149 lbs, according to the Fire – he plays a surprisingly physical game and is capable of muscling opposing players off the ball and was successful both in the ground and in the air last season, and the Fire’s press release about the signing was quick to point out that he was the leader in the Swiss Super League in tackles – the most effective central midfielder in that department – and second amongst starting central midfielders at winning aerial win rate, while being sixth overall in combined tackles and interceptions.
Despite the physicality of his game, he’s been durable for Lugano, playing in 35 of the team’s 36 league games last year and 2954 minutes total – equivalent to just under 33 full 90-minute games. What was said above about clean tackles? In all of those minutes he received just four yellow cards; by comparison, Giménez has already received five in just 1228 minutes – though comparing between leagues can be somewhat misleading.
On offense, he’s a quick, effective passer and is good at finding pockets of space. Compared to Giménez and Navarro, it seems that he’s capable of getting the ball off his feet a touch quicker, though that might well be an illusion based on the difference in quality between MLS and the Swiss first and second division. Regardless, he can make long, accurate passes without much time to set them up.
He’s also not afraid of playing further up the field on offense, and has shown a knack for knowing how to be in the right place and right time to recycle the offense or get a good look on goal. Although he’s never scored more than five goals in a season in Switzerland – and even that came in the second-division Challenge League back in the 2018/19 season, when he has scored he’s looked comfortable and confident doing so.
Are there any concerns about Doumbia’s game?
Almost all players require some kind of adjustment period to get comfortable in MLS, with the league’s schedule and travel often mentioned near the top of the list, but Doumbia will have to adjust quickly given that he’ll be here for only about a third of a season.
On top of that, MLS is a physical league but it’s also a big league, with an average height well above its Swiss counterpart. At 5’8”, he will often be one of the shorter players on the pitch, and while some players short of stature perform well in the air, it isn’t a guarantee.
Doumbia’s game is physical and he likes muscling players off the ball – but at under 150 lbs., will he be able to do that here? And if he can’t, how quickly will he make the mental adjustments necessary to instead go for a more finessed defensive performance that relies on his ability to track players and identify and close down spaces?
Referees in MLS also interpret the rules differently than their counterparts in the Swiss league, and some plays that might not have been called in Switzerland might result in fouls – or even a booking – on this side of the Atlantic. Again, the ability to recognize that quickly and make adjustments will be key.
What has the reaction been like from FC Lugano fans?
In short, they aren’t happy. Lugano fans have taken to social media to lament the loss of a player that they consider to be amongst the best on Lugano’s roster. A column from a local reporter also decried the fact despite protestrations that FC Lugano and the Fire are equal partners, the Fire have been receiving in-form players near the top of their game, like Maren Haile-Selassie and now, Doumbia, while in return the Fire have been shipping players that haven’t worked out as expected, such as Ignacio Aliseda and Jhon Espinoza. (Though the same article did call Aliseda a “jewel” of the roster, and Heitz never stopped believing in his talent or ceiling, but felt that he needed a change of venue to accomplish it.)
When could we see him in a Fire jersey?
The MLS summer transfer window officially opens July 5, though it is unlikely that Doumbia will have received the requisite visa and transfer certificate by then.
Predicting how quickly that might happen is an exercise in madness, even for those adept at it, but suffice it to say that it’s incredibly unlikely that Doumbia will be in a Fire jersey for their next home game against Nashville on July 8.
The Fire play two games in the following week, but smart money would say that with just three days to practice before the team host Montréal on July 12, then two days before Toronto visits Soldier Field on July 15, it might well be that his first game won’t be until after the All-Star Break, with the team’s first Leagues Cup match at Minnesota on July 27 looking most likely.
At that point, the team will have just 11 league games remaining in the regular season, giving Doumbia little time to adjust to the league and make an impact for the team.