FC Cincinnati players focus on the pitch amid new stadium efforts and Major League Soccer quest

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati defender Austin Berry would love to see Major League Soccer played in his hometown.

And the Cincinnati native would love to be part of helping bring it here.

He also knows that is out of his hands -- mostly.

The second-year United Soccer League club that Berry captains was one of 12 entities to submit bids in January to be included in MLS expansion, vying for one of four remaining spots. FCC has a strong pitch but it’s unlikely to earn a bid without a soccer-specific, club-controlled stadium, according to the standards MLS Commissioner Don Garber set forth in a December conference call and since then has reiterated several times.

FC Cincinnati captain and area native Austin Berry would love to see the team get a new stadium and move to Major League Soccer. (Phil Didion/WCPO Contributor)

FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding went public with his club‘s stadium pitch last week, calling for “a little help” in creating a public-private partnership to assist with roughly half the funding for a $200 million facility.

Berry said the players can only do their part to make the FCC brand attractive to the public and MLS.

“I wouldn't say it adds more pressure, but it's something we want as players,” Berry said. “That's what they sold us on as players, a lot of us, when we came here. I enjoy playing for a club that has those aspirations because that means we're not satisfied with where we're at."

For Berry, the most important thing for players it to concern themselves with is winning and continuing to improve.

That’s what FCC has done as of late. The team seems to have turned a corner since a rough stretch where it went 0-2-3 and fell to the bottom half of the Eastern Division standings.

FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding speak to the media about potential stadium sites for the team.

Coincidentally, since Berding’s news conference last Thursday, Cincinnati is 2-0 to extend its winning streak to four games and push the Orange and Blue to fourth heading into Saturday’s match at the Rochester Rhinos. Two of those wins came in U.S. Open Cup play, with Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Louisville City FC sending FCC into a fourth-round matchup with MLS side Columbus Crew SC on June 14.

Like Berry, FCC forward Jimmy McLaughlin said the team is motivated for success regardless of the MLS expansion picture, though.

“We are not focusing on that,” McLaughlin said. “We're focusing on us and doing our best on the field and taking care of business there. We leave all that to the front office, so we're not even focusing on that.

“We see all the stadium talk on social media and hear about it, but we're not involved in that. There's nothing we can do to control that. It's the club's business and it's not in our job description as players to care about that. We're out here focusing on playing and that's it.”

The stadium discussion already has drawn criticism in a town that has buyer’s remorse from using hundreds of millions of sales tax dollars to finance the Bengals and Reds stadiums. Berding and club ownership are well aware of that and not asking for any new taxes to be put in place.

Club ownership -- headed up by Carl Lindner IIII -- plans to put up the $150 million expansion fee on its own, as well as another $100 million toward the projected 25,000-seat stadium. Berding said the club is considering the West End, Oakley or Newport -- where he said a stadium can be an economic driver and serve the community while fulfilling the MLS requirement that each team eventually control its own stadium.

Possible sites include near Taft High School in the West End, the former Milacron site in Oakley and the vacant land near Newport on the Levee designated a decade ago for the Ovation mixed-use development.

Though no specific proposals have been discussed publicly, the rest of the funding would still need to come from tax dollars in some way. The FCC front office is hoping the stunning success of the club through its first year and a third -- with its record-breaking crowds and competitiveness on the pitch -- will help entice local governments to step forward.

Berding said a soccer stadium and MLS franchise would be “good for the city” by “supporting the renaissance” underway.

Despite upgrades to Nippert Stadium to make it more soccer-friendly, it’s not the kind of team-controlled venue MLS insists upon.

“We’ve been arguably the hottest soccer franchise in the United States for the past year,” Berding said in his news conference last week. “We want to plant a flag in the ground that Cincinnati is a great soccer market.”

FCC coach Alan Koch said he doesn’t want all that to be a distraction to his players, though, and he already has addressed them about staying focused on winning games.

The Orange and Blue look to continue their win streak for a return to Nippert Stadium on June 10 and leading into the potential MLS rivalry preview match with Columbus on June 14, also at home.

“Any talk like that about any club is always exciting, but from a coaching perspective and the players' perspective, we're focused on the season,” he said. “We're focusing on the U.S. Open Cup and the USL and that's it. I think we would be thinking one step too far. We focus on what we can control and as players and coaches we control how we go about preparing ourselves for games."

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