MLS Interested in Cincinnati

MLS Interest

On April 14th, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber made an official appearance in the city of Sacramento to address future league expansion. While speaking at a supporters event, Garber all but issued an invitation for USL club Sacramento Republic FC to join the MLS. Throughout his speech Garber mentioned other cities with MLS potential such as St. Louis, Detroit, San Antonio, San Diego and Austin. Many fans including myself were a little disappointed, but not shocked that FC Cincinnati was not mentioned.

Coming off our inaugural game, where FC Cincinnati drew 14,658 fans in 30 degree weather, the national soccer media gave our city praise. However, a majority of pundits referred to the number as a one-time number or said “let’s see how they do in subsequent games.” Then, we set a new USL regular season attendance record of 20,497 last weekend. Those two numbers have led to a social media firestorm that overtook the US soccer landscape and changed the perception of the club both in our city and across the country.

It is no coincidence that on Thursday, April 21st , while speaking at the Associated Press Sports Editors meetings, he added FC Cincinnati to that list of potential MLS  clubs.

When asked which teams could be added, Garber replied, “Sacramento, St. Louis, Detroit, San Diego, San Antonio, Austin and I’d be remiss to not point out Cincinnati.” The commissioner referred to the additional wave of expansion that will bring the league to 28 teams. Currently at 20 teams, MLS will add Atlanta United FC in 2017, Minnesota United (future name TBD) of the NASL in either 2017 or 18, the second Los Angeles team (LAFC) in 2018 and the Miami franchise under the ownership of David Beckham by 2019.

The addition of 4 teams from a list of 7 cities will bring the league to its goal of 28. Garber stated that he hopes to add these franchises in the year 2020. After Garber’s meeting in Sacramento, the consensus is that Republic FC will receive one of those spots. St. Louis, after losing the Rams (NFL) to LA, has a renewed interest in MLS and a possible downtown stadium deal. They are also likely to land a franchise.

That leaves 5 cities with a chance for the final 2 spots. During the interview on Thursday, Garber listed the teams in order of expansion priority. Detroit and San Diego seem to be the favorites for the final two positions, but neither city feature a fully-professional team or a stadium plan. Detroit has a great NPSL club, but it is unsure how that would translate, while San Diego identifies with Liga MX club Tijuana. These are two great markets, but there has not been much news to show ownership groups, stadiums or fanbases.

San Antonio is next on the list for the two remaining spots. The city features a quality stadium, top-notch ownership (Spurs Entertainment) and a good fan base (8,500 at first game). The only downside may be that the stadium is well outside the city center and is a publicly owned building. The former San Antonio NASL franchise sold the stadium to the city this offseason with stipulations that the USL club push to become a MLS franchise.

Austin, Texas is the fourth city vying for those same 2 spots. It has been heralded as a haven for millennials, a key demographic for MLS. The league has repeatedly stated that only one of San Antonio or Austin can join and right now San Antonio is ahead. The Austin Aztex USL franchise is on a one year hiatus so they can find a new venue as their home field. The former high school football stadium that they had been using was flooded last summer and they are looking to find a long term solution.

This leaves Cincinnati as the final member of the “short-list.” FC Cincinnati is blessed with probably the strongest ownership group of these seven cities. Even Sacramento is working to find additional capital to pay the $100 million entry fee. Garber shared a story from earlier this week with the media. Carl Lindner III called Garber and asked him how the first two weeks’ attendance in Cincinnati positioned them in the expansion process. Garber replied, “You’ve got to wait a while. We’ve been at this a few years. Just two good weekends doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have a sustainable fan base.”

While I understand Garber’s point, I love that our owner has the clout and the direction to call the commissioner and let him know that FC Cincinnati means business. I’ll touch on this more later, but no one can doubt that our ownership is trying to put the best product on the field for our city, even if that means joining the highest league in the country to do so.

MLS normally weighs several variables when it measures potential franchises. Outside of the normal measurements such as the stadium, attendance and ownership, Paul Kennedy of Soccer America believes that “expansion races are about footprint and (being) organic.” This is where I get nervous for FC Cincinnati.

The city has had several semi-pro teams in the past ten years (Kings, Saints, Silverbacks) all of which have failed due to attendance. The knock on those endeavors was that a support base did not build organically. FC Cincinnati boasts several supporters groups whose total numbers approach 1,000. Along with a season ticket base of over 5,000, this should satisfy MLS if it can be maintained.

The footprint is another question. Is MLS okay having two clubs in Ohio within a two hour drive of each other? St. Louis and Kansas City are where I draw a comparison. Sporting KC is technically in Kansas, but a majority of their supporters are from Missouri. Those two clubs are a little over 3 hours apart. If MLS is okay with that proximity, why wouldn’t they be okay with FC Cincinnati’s proximity to Columbus. FC Cincinnati must hope that Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt is not on the expansion committee.

FC Cincinnati can claim several positive factors to combat these concerns. The club has a US soccer legend in coach John Harkes. He instantly brings credibility to the FCC cause. GM Jeff Berding went out and spent money this offseason to provide the fans with a quality roster. MLS veterans Austin Berry, Corben Bone, Sean “Ugo” Okoli, Omar Cummings and Kenney Walker add a cachet to the roster.  More importantly, they show MLS that FC Cincinnati will spend to put a quality product on the field.

In reality, MLS would not have given much thought to Cincinnati if WE the fans didn’t show up. If you haven’t already, please check out Michael Walker’s story on last weeks fans and how we need to sustain. The club can have the best sponsors, players and stadium that money can buy. However, if you, the fans don’t continue to show up, Major League Soccer’s attention will evaporate. Tickets are affordable so that is not an excuse. Brad and I worked it out last week where we had 14 of our friends and family attend. That’s what we will need if you want an MLS club in our hometown.

Below is a checklist of what you can do to continue to keep FC Cincinnati on the minds of MLS.

I know that there will be detractors that say “you need to succeed in USL first.” They are 100% correct. By doing all of the above, we will push our club to new heights in the third tier of professional soccer. Our club could become one of the great clubs in the future of the sport. But all of this relies on you the fans, myself included.

FC Cincinnati joining MLS is a fantastic goal to have, regardless of how good our chances are. Two games in, not many people besides soothsayer Nick Seuberling could have predicted the attendance or the excitement. We don’t have to draw 20,000 every game. But if we continue to draw above 10,000 with the occasional 15,000+ crowd, MLS will not be able to say no. So please continue to ferociously support the club. Let us know what you think by following us on social media. You never know where we may end up!

@bryanweigel for @cincysoccertalk

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READ MORE from Cincinnati Soccer Talk:

Toronto FC II vs FC Cincinnati – Simple Man’s Preview

FC Cincinnati Breaking Records

Keep Pushing

In a Disappointing Loss, Cincinnati Garners American Soccer’s Attention

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