Entering first home stand, FC Cincy competing not only on the pitch but also for coveted MLS spot

Added incentive against St. Louis and Tampa Bay

CINCINNATI -- As FC Cincinnati heads into its first home stand, there's a little more to the rivalries than what happens on the pitch.

FC Cincinnati (1-2-0) plays United Soccer League Eastern Conference newcomer St. Louis FC (2-0-1) in its home opener Saturday night, followed by a mid-week tilt against former North American Soccer League club Tampa Bay Rowdies (3-0-0) to begin a three-game stint at Nippert Stadium.

Both St. Louis and Tampa are among the 11 cities competing with Cincinnati for the four remaining spots in Major League Soccer's plans to expand to 28 teams. Two teams will be announced by the end of the year.

"We hope fans embrace the rivalry," FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said. "That's the beauty of sports: We feel passionate pride for our hometown team and we want us to succeed in competition against other cities, and in this case there is a dual air to it. We are competing on the pitch in the USL, and we're competing with our ambitions for MLS."

St. Louis recently hit a huge snag in its plans to build a 22,000-seat stadium on a 24-acre site just west of the city's historic Union Station, which is undergoing its own redevelopment and eventually will include restaurants, retail, an aquarium and a Ferris wheel.

A measure intended to secure $60 million in public financing for the soccer-specific stadium was defeated in a municipal election last week, 53-47 percent, falling short by an estimated 3,000 votes. "Proposition 2" would have allocated the money toward stadium development through a half-cent tax increase on out-of-state business purchases.

"For many years we have believed that St. Louis would be a tremendous market for a Major League Soccer team, but the lack of a positive stadium vote is clearly a significant setback for the city's expansion opportunity and a loss for the community," MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said in a statement after the vote failed.

Berding declined to comment on St. Louis' situation but reiterated that FC Cincinnati still "feels good" about its bid.

"We're still trying to finalize our ownership group and working through some things, but for the most part, our bid is our bid and we feel good about it," Berding said. "If we draw 20,000 for our opener, we'll be one of the top home openers in North America. If we get 25,000, we would be one of the top five in MLS. We just need to continue to build our movement here in Cincinnati."

As of early this week, FC Cincinnati had sold more than 15,000 tickets for the home opener Saturday against St. Louis.

Its attendance history -- breaking the USL single-game and season records last year -- and 2017 projections are among the things that make Cincinnati attractive for an MLS bid, but a long-term stadium plan remains a question.

Berding has long pushed Nippert Stadium as a viable MLS facility but now seems to be changing his tone toward the necessity for a soccer-specific stadium.

"Nippert works, and if MLS gives us the green light, we have the opportunity to immediately begin at Nippert Stadium," Berding said. "At the end of the day, we want to win the competition. All the cities that are vying are all trying to figure out can they do a soccer-specific stadium. That will be criteria by which the bids are evaluated. We believe Cincinnati is a Major League community. We want to be bringing MLS to Cincinnati, and we're going to do our best to make it work."

The second-year club just poured $2 million into Nippert to widen the field by 5 feet in length and width to meet FIFA regulations, which makes Cincinnati MLS-ready for the short-term; however, MLS commissioner Don Garber is looking for a better long-term option that allows the club and league more control over the schedule and revenue.

FC Cincinnati's ownership group -- led by billionaire American Financial Group co-CEO Carl Lindner III -- has narrowed potential stadium sites down to "a few locations," according to Berding, but has not acquired any property. The club's initial thoughts on a stadium project were included in its bid, which was submitted by the Jan. 31 deadline.

Berding said MLS leadership still needs to witness a game at Nippert Stadium before making any decisions regarding Cincinnati's bid. The club has had a few recent conversations with MLS but Berding said "it's been pretty quiet" and no MLS visits to a home game have been placed on the books yet.

"I think it's clear MLS is building their league in a competitive environment," Berding said. "They see soccer-specific stadiums as being integral to the successful buildout of their league, and there's a competition underway with 12 cities to put forward the best bids possible. Certainly a bid that has a soccer-specific stadium is going to be viewed very favorably, so we continue to work on our thoughts on how we might be able to pull that off.

"Soccer-specific stadiums give the league the opportunity to grow, and I think it's clear that's why communities are trying to pull it off. We'll see where we land here in Cincinnati."

Hamilton County Commissioners Chris Monzel and Todd Portune told WCPO in February that any stadium proposal would almost certainly need to be privately financed, but funding was something that wasn't being discussed at that time as the focus was still on making it work at Nippert.

Few of the competing cities actually have concrete plans for a soccer specific stadium, and even Miami, the 24th team already expected to join the league, has struggled to finalize its land deal.

Tampa Bay is one of the few with a long-term stadium plan well underway. The Rowdies already have refurbished seats, the video board, locker rooms and more at Al Lang Stadium -- a converted baseball stadium that sits on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront -- and owner Bill Edwards, a prominent local real estate developer, is committed to putting $80 million or more into expanding the stadium from around 7,200 seats to 18,000.

Berding said seeing other cities hitting roadblocks -- even Detroit's NBA owners Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert can't lock down land -- doesn't necessarily improve FC Cincinnati's chances.

"There are 12 cities vying for a couple spots, and this isn't easy," Berding said. "There are certainly going to be challenges. At the end of the day, we think the winning cities are going to be the ones that figure out how to overcome the challenges. We're giving it our best shot. We like the opportunity to have Nippert, but long term we are cognizant of where the league wants to be. We'll see if we have an opportunity to overcome challenges and make it happen or not. We don't know yet."

In the meantime, FC Cincinnati can potentially help its case with continued support from the fans and a strong showing on the pitch.

The Orange and Blue picked up their first win April 1 at Pittsburgh but dropped their second loss Sunday, falling 2-0 at Bethlehem Steel FC while playing short-handed after an early red card and injury to former Arsenal defender Justin Hoyte, who was making his first start.

The players say they look forward to playing in front of a home crowd and the fact that the first two games at Nippert are against other clubs with MLS ambitions only adds some fuel to their fire.

"I think all the teams that are looking to get into MLS have to have competitive teams," defender Harrison Delbridge said. "They are all going to be good teams, and they want to put a good brand of soccer on the field. That's part of them wanting to get into MLS. So when you are playing against teams like that, it's going to be a good game because they have to put a good product on the field ultimately. Hopefully, we can get a couple wins here and keep showing what we have to offer as a potential MLS club someday."

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