MLS expectations hard to ignore after FC Cincinnati's dream start

Courtesy: USL.

Cincinnati has been on the fringes of expansion talk, but as Paul Tenorio reports, a strong response to the city's new USL team is changing the conversation.

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The momentum started with a tweet.

A couple hours after FC Cincinnati played its home opener in front of a crowd of 14,658 in 30-degree temperatures, University of Cincinnati president Santa J. Ono retweeted a fact about USL’s record for attendance.

“I predict @fccincinnati will break this @usl regular season attendance record,” he wrote to his 68,000-plus followers.

Soccer is on the rise and soccer represents the future. For Cincinnati to have a dynamic future, soccer can be a big part of that.

- Jeff Berding

Just a few weeks into the club’s existence, it was a challenge that felt overwhelming, even to those who had dreamed up the return of pro soccer in the Queen City. FC Cincinnati’s leadership knew soccer could work in the market. They had spent months planning for the launch before even announcing a team last August. The response of fans in the lead-up to the season and a walk-up crowd in the thousands for the opener reinforced those beliefs.

Still, surpassing a mark of 20,231 felt … well, if not overly ambitious, perhaps exceedingly optimistic.

“I didn’t want to go there because you like to be a little more conservative,” FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding told FourFourTwo, a hint of a smile in his voice. “If you’re going to put a number out there, let’s make sure we hit it. It certainly wasn’t an organizational goal we felt we could do in our second game.”

As the week wore on and the number of tickets sold kept increasing, the idea became a little more realistic. Predictions went from 13,000 to 14,000. Going into game day, FC Cincinnati coach John Harkes was told the crowd was going to be closer to 16,500.

A walk-up crowd of more than 5,000 made Ono look clairvoyant. 

Courtesy: USL.

20,497 at Nippert Stadium set USL's single-game mark. (Photo: USL)

The University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium had been tarped up for a soccer capacity of 20,000. Seats behind and around those tarps had to be opened to accommodate the demand. In the end, a USL regular-season record crowd of 20,497 packed in to watch the game, which would end in a 3-2 loss to Louisville City.

FC Cincinnati wanted to make an impression in its first season. It aimed merely to enter the conversation. Now, the city and the club were thrust into the center of the buzz in the American soccer conversation.

“To surpass the 20-[thousand] was sort of a wow moment,” Berding said.

Building a winner

I draw a lot from the beginning as a player, what I went through and what the players are going through ... I know it is going to be a process and take patience to build and grow together

John Harkes arrived in Cincinnati with a unique understanding of the challenges that come with building a team from scratch.

Harkes, who was named FC Cincinnati’s first coach, was a member of the inaugural D.C. United team when MLS launched 20 years ago. The former U.S. national team captain saw first-hand the challenges that come not just with creating and developing chemistry on the field but balancing soccer with all that needs to be done to create structure away from the field.

“I do draw experience from 1996,” Harkes said. “I draw a lot from the beginning as a player, what I went through and what the players are going through, and I shared a lot of the pitfalls along the way. I can remember coming out of the gates with two wins in the first seven or eight games, I know it is going to be a process and take patience to build and grow together and figure it out along the way.”

Harkes had just a few months to build the inaugural roster. He put together a team that includes more than a few familiar names in the American soccer scene: forwards Omar Cummings and Antoine Hoppenot; midfielders Corben Bone and Jimmy McLaughlin; 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry, a Cincinnati native.

His goal was to create a team that showed some aspects of who he was as a player – hardworking, but with a flair for the creative – and also integrated the influences of the many coaches and players he had come across in his career, which included a successful stretch in England with Derby County and 90 caps with the U.S. national team.

Harkes also wanted players who had something to prove, who might have needed “a new landscape to showcase themselves, because maybe it didn’t work out where they were before.”

FC Cincinnati is 2-2-0 so far this season, including last week’s 3-2 loss in front of the record crowd. Harkes said the level of support in the team’s second game was “unbelievable,” but he took more out of it than just the attendance figures.

“We’ve already seen the loyalty of the fanbase, which is amazing,” Harkes said. “We were down 3-1 late in the game and our fans could not stop cheering and singing. We scored in the 90th minute, and they went crazy, and we almost tied it up after that, hit the post and had some chances. That’s a great sign and that has a massive impact on the team in a positive way. … We talked about character traits of the club, and you look at the supporters groups and people that believe what you’re trying to build. It’s been an incredible response. It’s fantastic, it really is.”

Courtesy: USL.

Cincy's fans already have outsiders talking 'MLS'. (Photo: USL)

An aspirational club

Despite its early successes, FC Cincinnati is not getting ahead of itself.

Berding repeats this message often over the course of a 30-minute conversation, almost as if he must convince people not to jump too quickly on a Cincinnati-to-MLS narrative. MLS may be the goal, but a deliberate plan was put in place to first create a sustainable franchise in the market.

It started with ownership. Carl H. Lindner III is co-CEO of American Financial Group Inc., and his family is a staple in Cincinnati. Forbes estimated his late father’s wealth in 2006 at $2.3 billion.

Berding joined FC Cincinnati from the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, where he had worked as director of sales and public affairs. Harkes, an American soccer legend and former national team captain, was hired as the team’s first head coach. The club also partnered with the University of Cincinnati to play in Nippert Stadium, which just underwent a $90 million renovation and sits in the heart of a campus with 40,000 college students.

All of it was done with an aim to make a strong introduction in the market.

“Certainly the credibility that Carl Lindner III and his family bring to Cincinnati, people knew we were going to have some staying power,” Berding said. “We had the strength of ownership to stand behind us and they have given us the resources to run the organization at a high level. … Ownership and my involvement and hiring John Harkes as head coach I think has given us a pretty good foundation from which to build from.”

Courtesy: USL.

14,658 braved 30-degree temperatures for FCC's opener. (Photo: USL)

The efforts since launching in August have focused on creating ties within the community.

The team reached out to the local youth soccer network to develop relationships. FC Cincinnati invited all high school, college and youth coaches to be guests on the “party deck” at the first two games to “witness their efforts that paved the way for us to be successful,” Berding said. 

Berding has also worked to meet with the local businesses and organizations to develop partnerships. Soccer’s ability to reach the millennial population is a key driver in those efforts.

“When I talk about this club, I talk about it with two key messages,” Berding said. “One is the soccer aspect and the other is the civic aspect. The city is on the rise, soccer is on the rise and soccer represents the future. For Cincinnati to have a dynamic future, a progressive future, soccer can be a big part of that.”

The first two games certainly have helped deliver those messages in the market, and those outside of Cincinnati have taken notice, as well. That was the goal all along, but Berding knows it’s only the beginning of the process.

“At the end of the day, it’s an aspirational league and do we have aspirations toward MLS? Sure we do, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Berding said. “The best way to get there is being the best USL franchise we can be: great attendance, great business support, having a successful team on the field. That’s how we get there. If we can do all those things, we think the future will take care of itself.”

Berding said the team had an initial “check-in” conversation with MLS long before the club launched last August, and among the topics was the long-term use of Nippert Stadium.

Nippert seats approximately 40,000 fans and has suites and a club level. FC Cincinnati also installed new field turf that will allow the team to avoid football end zones when it overlaps with the University of Cincinnati’s football team. The club believes the stadium, which is easily accessible within the city and for UC students, is the right fit and can work in a league where multiple teams use larger football stadiums – Seattle, New England and expansion Atlanta among them.

But again, Berding doesn’t want to look too far ahead.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has said the league will eventually expand to 28 teams. Among the markets mentioned: Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, Detroit and San Diego. Garber told media on Thursday that FC Cincinnati ownership called him this week to ask about a path to MLS expansion.

"I said 'you'll have to wait a while,'” Garber said, according to reports.

The hope, though, is that Cincinnati can now be a part of the discussion.

“We have shown we have sufficient ownership and a sufficient market to rally around us and support us in the highest level of American soccer,” he said. “We want to make sure Cincinnati is part of the conversation. We know there is plenty of work not just today, but next year and the year after to show Cincinnati is sustainable and can grow and get better.

“But certainly we like to think we’ve gotten off to a pretty strong start.”

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Paul Tenorio reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.