At long last — Cincinnati here we are!
After a year-long campaign to earn one of two coveted Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion bids and five months of restless agony, the wait is finally over. MLS has landed in Cincinnati, with commissioner Don Garber officially welcoming FC Cincinnati as the league’s 26th franchise in an announcement Tuesday.
“You’re going to remember this day as a truly historic event for the Queen City, for FC Cincinnati, for Major League Soccer and North America” Garber said at a private event at Rhinegeist streamed live to supporters at Fountain Square. “You should be incredibly proud of your meteoric rise as one of our continent’s incredible soccer cities.
”You guys had me at hello when I got off that plane 18 months ago. To your incredible fans: You folks have shocked the world … you showed us that if you have the right city, if you have the right ownership and public support, and you have the ability to bring fans together around this sport for a new America, great things can happen. And the world has taken notice.”
The wait in purgatory was longer than anticipated but it earned the FCC faithful five days to bask in the glow of a pending celebration party. The news broke Thursday morning, and the advanced notice helped create a festive atmosphere — albeit without the traditional drums and flags typically found at Nippert Stadium.
”I may not be big enough for this podium, but Cincinnati is big enough for soccer,” Mayor John Cranley said. “We are a new city … we welcome new people, no matter where you’re from. And soccer brings people together from all over the world.”
The league announced that FCC will begin its inaugural MLS season in March 2019 — barely nine months from now — with the club playing at Nippert until construction of the new 21,000-seat stadium in the West End is complete in 2021. FCC’s conference affiliation is to be determined, according to an MLS press release.
The accelerated timeline means FCC must move quickly to transition from USL to MLS. The front office has already taken measures in anticipation, but there’s still plenty left to do. The 2019 preseason begins in late January.
Getting to this point was anything but easy. Deadlines came and went. City government and the club had public hearings and press conferences about potential stadium locations and bid updates. And during it all, MLS remained silent, leaving the FCC community — club and supporters alike — with a collective churning stomach.
The actual expansion application process was quite lengthy. FCC raised enough eyebrows in its inaugural USL season to draw a postseason visit from Garber on Nov. 29, 2016 — 18 months to the day before Tuesday’s announcement — and at a time when the USL had Division III status in the United States Soccer Federation pyramid. The club hand-delivered its official MLS expansion application to league offices in New York on Jan. 31, 2017. Eleven other teams submitted bids for four planned available spots — two to be announced by the end of 2017 and two more sometime in 2018.
MLS named FCC one of four finalists — along with Nashville, Detroit and Sacramento — on Nov. 29, exactly one year after Garber’s initial visit. Berding delivered his final presentation on Dec. 6 in New York. And then the waiting started.
MLS invited Nashville first on Dec. 20, then just a day later said the second team wouldn’t be announced until early this year, skewing the original timeline. As the weeks and months passed without a verdict, MLS said little, leaving FCC holding its breath
The stadium location — would it be in Oakley, West End or Newport? — and how much of its own money FCC would spend proved to be major obstacles. MLS was waiting to see where the stadium would be located, Garber said after the event.
”You should know that we fought hard over the last six months with your mayor, with your community and with (majority owner) Carl (Lindner III) to get a stadium site that is unprecedented,” Garber said. “This could be Bernabeu. This could be Anfield.”
Said Cranley: “We put those (political) differences aside and put the city first. We are embracing a new city and a new future. As we listened to each other, there was one group that was ahead of all of us. And that was the fan base of FCC.”
The club cleared the final hurdles with Cincinnati City Council passing legislation to support infrastructure on April 16 and club officials reaching an agreement with the West End Community Council on a Community Benefits Agreement earlier this month.
FCC will pay for the entire stadium on its own with site and infrastructure support funded by the city. The stadium will be where Taft High School’s Stargel Stadium currently sits, with Stargel relocating about a block southwest.
Nashville is likely to begin MLS play in 2020 along with Futbol Miami, a David Beckham-led franchise awarded league entry as a condition of the former European star signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007.
FCC seemed destined for MLS almost from the beginning. The club began play in 2016 and set a USL attendance record in its second game at Nippert — a record broken several times over. Well more than half a million fans have entered Nippert to watch FCC play. The club hit fever pitch in 2017 with a historic run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, knocking off MLS sides Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire at Nippert in the process.
“This day was always the vision for Carl Lindner and me from the day that we began on Aug, 12, 2015,” said FCC president and general manager Jeff Berding. “We had a vision of where we were going, we had a plan for how we were going to get there, we had a commitment to hold people accountable, and we were always guided by the same core values. It’s appropriate that we’re here at a bar. We’re accessible to everyone — where people come together — our owners, our staff, our citizens and city leaders, our neighbors. Everybody comes together as a club.”
During the run, U.S. Soccer declared Cincinnati the capital of American soccer. Garber and then-USSF president Sunil Gulati witnessed in person the USOC semifinals against the New York Red Bulls, a third MLS side visiting Nippert. FCC led 2-0 before falling in extra time.
After that match, Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said he hoped Garber noticed the Nippert environment and added, “I don’t think it will be too long before we’re back here again playing in more meaningful games.”
Tuesday marked a celebration of FCC and the entire city, with Cranley declaring an unofficial holiday, “Orange and Blue Day.”
”Look at all the orange and blue in this room and in this city today,” Lindner said. “Because of all of you, our basic supporters, FC Cincinnati has become an organic, region-wide movement
”FC Cincinnati is a portrait of this city — the pride, the passion, the love.”
The expansion invitation once again gives Cincinnati three top-flight professional teams.
”Despite all of FCC’s success, I’m still a Reds and Bengals fan,” Cranley said. “Aren’t you?“
Current FCC season ticket holders will have priority in seat selection for the club’s inaugural 2019 MLS season, according to an MLS press release. Fans without priority can earn higher priority for next season by purchasing pro-rated 2018 season tickets, available through June 30. FCC will begin taking $50 deposits for 2019 season tickets on July 2.