When FC Cincinnati flung open the doors to Nippert Stadium for the first time, nearly 15,000 fans walked through them (FCC went on to beat the Charlotte Independence 2-1). A franchise-opening match at home in the middle of the city? Of course attendance was good. Let’s see how it holds up.
A week later FCC hosted its next game. This time more than 20,000 people showed up. And then 11,000 in the driving rain not long after that. Perhaps something was happening in the land of Skyline Chili we had not anticipated. A tremor in the Midwestern Force.
There was something happening here, perhaps something beyond reckoning. And as if there was any doubt, Wednesday allayed any notions to the contrary that FC Cincinnati is about to be the next expansion team admitted to MLS.
The entryway to this entire discussion were those crowds, the orange and blue-clad denizens of Cincinnati who showed to Nippert in such brilliantly claustrophobic clouds. But the door jamb might as well have been FCC’s arresting U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 win over the Chicago Fire, which started Schweinsteiger for bonus points, in a scintillating penalty shootout on Wednesday night. More than 30,000 jammed into Nippert, the second largest crowd in U.S. Open Cup history, to watch FCC and the Fire battle through 120 scoreless if entertaining minutes.
Fittingly, the hero was a goalkeeper named Mitch Hildebrandt, who spent a year in the PDL with the Kalamazoo Outrage, obviously the best name in all of soccer, before being an in-and-out starter with then-NASL Minnesota United. Hildebrandt saved three penalties, including the decider with a brilliant sprawling dive to his left to end the game.
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) June 29, 2017
The scenes afterward were… well… scenes.
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) June 29, 2017
FC Cincinnati still has three more wins before it can consider itself the first non-MLS team to win a USOC trophy since the Rochester Rhinos in MLS’s early days in 1999. A non-MLS hasn’t even been to the final since the Charleston Battery in 2008. One is guaranteed to be in the final four, at least. FC Cincinnati plays Miami FC, shock winners over Atlanta United, next in the quarters.
If there was any doubt before, there should not be now. FC Cincinnati is about to join MLS, and any wavering was skewered in the chest on Wednesday night.
MLS values, according to MLS commish Don Garber himself, three things broadly when evaluating expansion bids. Let’s go through them piecemeal. FC Cincinnati, you’ll notice, acquits itself well.
“So ownership and a committed ownership group that’s passionate about the sport, believes in the league, and also has the resources to invest in infrastructure to build the sport at all levels in their market is first and foremost.”
Excepting whatever happened with former coach John Harkes, who was mysteriously jettisoned last offseason after a successful third-place USL finish last season, FC Cincinnati’s ownership group was among the smartest and most invested from the moment the doors opened. They averaged more than 17,000 tickets sold per game in 2016 – about 7,000 more than they expected – welcomed Premier League club Crystal Palace for a friendly, finished in the black in their first season in a league not beholden to those results, and were largely considered the USL’s shining light in merchandising and support out of the box. Nobody was pulling numbers like FC Cincinnati. Nobody is pulling numbers like FC Cincinnati.
What’s more, majority owner Carl Lindner III is deeply invested in the city of Cincinnati. The billionaire Lindner family’s been active in the Cincinnati area for close to a century, and Lindner III, the club’s majority owner, is seemingly committed to the club’s success in the city. Not something every club even in MLS can say.
“Second is the market, and we look for a market that has a history of strong fan support for soccer overall at all levels, from the bottom all the way up to the professional level. We certainly look at market size. We look at the geographic location as we think about the geographic footprint, and rolling out broad fan support for our league.”
We’ve already answered why the market itself will bear FC Cincinnati, and it’s not just wrapped in Wednesday’s luminescent packaging. It’s the crowds, and the consistent crowds.
It’s easy enough to be wooed by the 30,000-plus who showed up to watch the club shoo the Fire out of the USOC, but FC Cincinnati’s been doing big, rowdy crowds for more than a year now. There were obviously the 17,000+ on average last year, but the numbers have stayed up. Way up. Most recently, on June 17, FC Cincinnati drew 21,074 to an otherwise unremarkable midseason match against the Charleston Battery. The match ended 2-2, FC Cincinnati stealing a late point on an 80th minute Andrew Wiedeman goal, and Nippert lost itself.
This is precisely the sort of fan support MLS craves. The league, and specifically Garber, wants to eliminate guessing games as much as humanly possible. These are lessons learned from 20 years of hard-bitten expansion and contraction. FC Cincinnati proved to the nation on Wednesday it was ready. But those who’d seen the club for the last year knew this was already the case.
And as for that geographic footprint? Scintillating packed-house USOC wins in back-to-back rounds over built-in regional rivals Columbus and Chicago sort of answers that question, doesn’t it?
“The third is stadium. As you know, we look for very comprehensive stadium plans to ensure that the team is going to have proper homes for their fans and players while also serving in many ways as a destination for the entire sport in their respective market.”
This is probably FC Cincinnati’s weakest peg, but on balance it’s not all that weak. The University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium is a quality venue basically in line with the atmosphere and seating realities of Atlanta United’s Bobby Dodd. The problem, generally, is that FC Cincinnati doesn’t have a succession plan and, as of late 2016, has no real intention of developing one in the near term. In a Reddit Q&A last October, club president & GM Jeff Berding more or less outlined to us, but in reality to Garber, why Nippert’s a worthwhile home for the time being.
We believe Nippert Stadium is a proven venue, and we hope to share that with MLS during this process.
We’re working closely with UC and always want Nippert to be a great venue for fans of both sports, and we’re going to continue to work in partnership on that result.
Natural grass is not something that we’re discussing at this time. We have a brand new FIFA-certified turf field that we feel works very well.
We’re going to work in partnership with the University on opportunities to enhance the stadium. They have their own priorities, and will defer to them on specifics.
This of course doesn’t mean the club doesn’t plan on building, as it must to become a viable MLS expansion addition. But the club need only provide the league office outlines, vague at worst and general at best, to open the door to the league. Cincinnati is not Miami, is not LA, is not Dallas, is not St. Louis, even. Politics exist in every city, but the club has an invested fan-billionaire funding the venture at its disposal and proven fan support. When those two things flow into one another like two rivers colliding to form a basin, the stadium isn’t usually far behind.
The point is, Wednesday proved to a national audience what a niche one already knew. The next expansion candidate should be an expansion lock. FC Cincinnati, please pick up the courtesy phone. Don Garber is on line one.