FC Cincinnati fans show their support in the Bailey at the end of the Nippert Stadium field at the team's inaugural game against Charlotte Independence last year. As the team enters its first home stand this year, it is competing with St. Louis and Tampa Bay not only on the pitch, but also for a coveted spot in Major League Soccer.
CINCINNATI -- A delay in scheduling for the United Soccer League apparently hasn’t kept FC Cincinnati fans from planning for the club’s second season.
FC Cincinnati hit another sales threshold this week, topping 9,000 season tickets one month after hitting the 8,000 mark.
Club president and general manager Jeff Berding said the schedule could be released in the next 10 days, a process that was delayed by the uncertainty of the struggling North American Soccer League’s sustainability and whether the USL would be taking on more teams.
The Orange and Blue released their preseason schedule Thursday, including a return trip to train and compete in a tournament Feb. 19-25 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“It hasn’t hurt us in terms of selling tickets,” Berding said. “We’re still selling plenty, and we weren’t going to sell individual game tickets by this point anyway.
“We might get a bump once the schedule is announced, but we introduced a flexibility program, where season ticket holders have options on their seats for games they cannot attend. I think that’s helped us prior to the schedule being released.”
WCPO Insiders can learn more about the schedule and why FC Cincinnati's league is moving up in status.
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The U.S. Soccer Federation last week granted provisional Division 2 status to both the USL, formerly a third-tier league, and the NASL, which seemed on the verge of folding if stripped of its Division 2 status.
The NASL already lost two teams to the USL – the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury – and Minnesota United moves up to Major League Soccer this year. It also once seemed the New York Cosmos were dead until new ownership stepped in with a deal to purchase contingent on D-2 status. USSF’s decision likely saved not only the league’s most successful franchise but also the NASL as a whole.
Nothing is guaranteed beyond 2017 for either league, as certain standards must be met for them to remain D-2.
“The USL is honored to receive U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2 status, which provides further validation about our league’s financial sustainability, national footprint, ownership quality, stadium infrastructure and player development,” USL Chief Executive Officer Alec Papadakis said in a statement. “Our teams have invested more than $100 million into stadium development in the last year to enhance the experience for the 1.5 million passionate fans that attended games in 2016, the 1,000-plus players and nearly 100 coaches that have positioned our League as a highly-sophisticated competition model that cultivates strong regional rivalries.”
With the division status set, it became clear the USL could move forward with its current 30 teams. The league announced its conference alignments and schedule format Monday, paving the way for teams to set their schedules in the coming weeks.
The 2017 USL regular season schedule will see teams play 32 matches contested over 30 weeks, with the regular season starting on March 24-26 and concluding the weekend of October 13-15. Teams will play two games (one home, one away) against each of their 14 conference rivals. The remaining four games will be played against regional foes.
Berding said the schedule delay doesn’t affect the club much in terms of its advanced planning for road games, so the club isn’t behind in that regard. The biggest holdup is in finalizing television deals and making sure the game times match up with openings for broadcasts.
“It’s pretty similar to last year,” Berding said, referring to the travel and teams they will face. “We know the cities. We might go more than once regionally but those are drives, so that’s not all that impactful. The thing is when you get into a Wednesday to Saturday game or vice versa and you’re thinking drive and it becomes fly or fly becomes drive. We have a good handle on our travel plans and budget, but just need to finalize things. Our expectation is to have the schedule confirmed in the next 10 days.”
FC Cincinnati didn’t necessarily need to know the league’s division status to move forward, as it already was operating at an elite level and now prepares to submit an application for MLS expansion by the Jan. 31 deadline. The franchise already was trying to conduct itself in a way that's “consistent with what people expect of a Cincinnati professional sports team,” Berding said.
Most considered the USL a stronger league than its Division 3 designation indicated anyway, and its higher status doesn’t change much beyond the recognition as being one step below MLS.
However, Berding said the announcement could potentially help the club in its recruitment of foreign players and lining up TV deals.
“I think as it relates to international players who are used to first and second division league play, the USL is more attractive to those players to some degree now,” Berding said. “It provides a more concrete path to MLS as second division, and it also allows for more TV deals in the league overall. The USL is working to grow its partnership with ESPN with the ‘Game of the Week’ they did last year and with Sirius XM, and it allows for continued growth.
“From a broader standpoint to FC Cincinnati, it raises the bar for the team and the quality of competition in the league. I think that’s a good thing for the fans. For our club and our standing in the market, it’s affirmation we’re bringing professional soccer at a very high level in Cincinnati.”
As FC Cincinnati now works to put out its regular-season schedule, Berding said the club is anxious to get the preseason underway.
Players have been trickling in to set up camp for the next 10 months, and FC Cincinnati especially looks forward to some quality competition before the season begins. In returning to IMG Academy in February, the Orange and Blue will get a chance to play MLS side Chicago Fire, as well as get a first look at USL newcomer and fellow Eastern Conference foe Ottawa Fury and Western Conference opponent OKC Energy.
They also will head to California for a much anticipated matchup March 4 with the Sacramento Republic, another USL club expected to be among the highest MLS expansion prospects and the league’s former attendance leader before FC Cincinnati joined. Friendlies against the University of Cincinnati (March 11) and Xavier University (March 17) also are included in the exhibition lineup.
“We’re very excited to get back to soccer,” Berding said. “It’s been a productive offseason, but I’m excited to have our players back in town and ready to work out. Our goal is to win a USL championship. Our city is hungry for postseason success, and we’re ready to get back to it.”