If you squinted hard enough you could envision a sea of orange and blue. If you listened close enough you could hear the drums, the chants, the cheers. Even in the cold barren cavern of brick, steel, and concrete that was Nippert Stadium on Wednesday night, you could relive the moments:
The sound of the ball ricocheting off Mitch Hildebrandt’s left hand in the 104th minute, one thumping off Austin Berry’s head in the 62nd, Allan Cruz with the back heel, or an acrobatic Sean Okoli sending the Bailey into delirium.
Silverware was hoisted there, attendance records were smashed, and an MLS dream came true, all part of a fairy tale that even almost five years later, many struggle to believe it was real.
They say buildings have memories and some harbor ghosts. While FCC occupied Nippert Stadium for only a brief moment of the structure’s 119-year history, it left indelible memories.
The Bearcats made history there, of course. The Bengals, too. But pretty safe to say Nippert never witnessed a phenomenon quite like FC Cincinnati, and likely never will again.
“It’s a symbol of our rapid rise, from a startup to a Major League Soccer franchise in five years,” said team president Jeff Berding at a press conference on Wednesday. “We were hoping for an emotional sendoff. But there’s a lot of disappointment in 2020.”
If anyone saw this FCC story coming, they’re lying.
On a brisk, 39-degree day on April 9, 2016, a USL-record crowd of 14,658 passed through the turnstiles at Nippert Stadium. It was beyond what anyone expected, only because nobody at that point could possibly imagine what would happen next.
“We had no idea what to expect,” said Berding.
One week later, attendance swelled to 20,497 for a matchup against Louisville City. Two weeks after that, despite steady rain on a miserable evening, 11,318 hardy souls watched FCC play Wilmington to a 1-1 draw.
There was magic in the air.
On July 16 of that season, FCC hosted Premier League side Crystal Palace for a friendly played before 35,061 fans, the largest crowd to attend a soccer match in Ohio history. The following season, crowds of 30,000-plus watched the club’s magical run to the US Open Cup semifinals, capturing the interest of the country and the attention of MLS commissioner Don Garber.
“Outside of Seattle and Atlanta, you could argue with the intimacy at Nippert, nobody had a better home-field advantage than we do,” said FCC keeper Spencer Richey. “One of the loudest and most interactive environments I’ve ever played in. One of the best in MLS, if not the best.”
Nippert, while certainly among the most historic and charming venues in all of college football, was never the best place to watch soccer.
The restroom and concession facilities were built for four-hour football games, not 90 minutes of soccer. The Bailey, devised to be the crowd’s heart and soul, often seemed isolated, detached from the rest of the stadium, nestled like a choir loft high above the goal.
But for all its quirks, Nippert was home.
“Nippert served as the ultimate stage for FC Cincinnati,” said Jeff Smith, VP sales and ticketing. “This is the location where we could demonstrate who we were to the world. We all feel a level of gratitude to the fans and to the University.”
The University of Cincinnati did for FC Cincinnati what Max Yasgur did for Woodstock. The festival which would ultimately become the greatest spectacle in rock music history had been turned away by nearby towns until Yasgur loaned his property to the masses.
Yasgur, like UC, could not have predicted the ramifications of his decision. It’s fairly certain that without Nippert, there would be no FC Cincinnati and no MLS bid.
On Wednesday night, FC Cincinnati bid Nippert Stadium a fond farewell, in the cruelest and unkindest manner. Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, there were no fans permitted in the stands. The supporters that in a few short years helped turn FCC’s dream into reality and create one of America’s most revered soccer atmospheres, were unable to attend.
There were no pre-game marches. But while the Bailey sat dormant on Wednesday, it was well-adorned with banners honoring players past and present. At the conclusion of the 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City, blue and orange smoke rose above the Bailey and the scoreboard offered three words: THANK YOU, SUPPORTERS.
As much as Wednesday night was a time to look back, it also was time to look ahead. While Nippert made memories, the West End Stadium harbors hope. A little more than two miles down the road from the University of Cincinnati campus lies FC Cincinnati’s future.
But regardless of what success the club experiences in the West End, fans and players who were a part of the atmosphere at Nippert Stadium will never forget it.
“Some of the most fun games I’ve ever played in, and that’s due to the supporters and the atmosphere they created,” Richey said. “This was a city hungry for soccer and they certainly showed up. Hope that going into the West End Stadium, the supporters will get the results they deserve. Brighter days ahead.”