A new era in Cincinnati (semi-)professional soccer begins Friday with the home opener for the Saints.
The Saints, a member of National Premier Soccer League, a massive unaffiliated minor league, started their season with two straight losses on the road.
However, they’re hoping playing in front of their home crowd will help them secure three points against the Erie Admirals. The game starts at 7:30 p.m.
In addition to providing a chance to snap their early-season losing streak, Friday night’s match gives the Saints a chance to christen their new home turf — Stargel Stadium in Over-the-Rhine. The team donated goals to the Taft High School’s athletic department so the school can develop a soccer program.
Serving as the home field for Taft's football team, the venue on Ezzard Charles Drive provides the Saints with a location that puts them in the heart of the city for seven regular season games, a handful of pre- and postseason matches, and two practices a week.
“We hope to attract a different environment downtown,” said team owner David Satterwhite who hopes soccer fans adapt well to having a true outdoor professional soccer league in the city.
This is the Saints first year as a professional outdoor team, but the organization has played in a top indoor league — the Professional Arena Soccer League — for several years. They also have a women's team.
And while the current players aren’t going to become rich playing for the Saints, that doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t have pro-level talent. Every single player on the team played at least “high-level” college soccer, with three of them playing in the MLS at one point or another.
Although all the players, ranging in age from 20 to 34, have “real jobs” doing things like selling pharmaceuticals to working in advertising at Procter & Gamble, they'd all rather be playing pro soccer for a living.
"Our goal is to bring full professional soccer to Cincinnati -- an MLS franchise for the men and a NWSL franchise for the Lady Saints," he said.
Past success has helped the organization develop a small yet vocal supporter group, the Seven Hills Crusaders, that shows up at every game, wears the blue and white team scarf and sings the club song, "When the Saints come marching in."
But Satterwhite is looking to continue that fan base growth through online campaigns, social media blitzes and even a Web-TV deal through ICRC TV Sports. You can watch all their games through YouTube, and there's a pregame show 30 minutes prior to every match.
The most important part of that growth, Satterwhite said, is improving the game experience for the fans.
He dreams of making a bleacher seats at Stargel Stadium feel a bit more like one of the most popular and fun venues in all of sports.
“Obviously it won’t be to the same scale, but we’re hoping to make it a “Wrigley Field” environment with the entertainment aspects of a downtown area, like a small Wrigleyville,” he said. “Personally, I’d be ecstatic with 1,000 screaming fans at every home game.”
But he says he hopes to be more like the Detroit City club, which draws about 3,000 fans a night to its downtown Detroit venue.
Part of the way their doing that is a by creating a family-friendly environment, including inexpensive tickets ($8) and pre-game tailgating.
The weekly "Charitygate" event in the stadium parking lot. It features $3 beers, food, and games for kids and grownups alike. All proceeds go to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
They’re also partnering with Kings Island's Kick for Cancer by selling little pink soccer balls to raise money for research. People who purchase a ball will go out to midfield and take a shot on goal for a chance to win Saints gear.
Satterwhite says he ultimately wants to make the team a part of the downtown and OTR communities.
"This is our city. We all live her and love being here — and we want the city to love us back,” he said. "You the fan hold the future of the club in your hands! So get out there and support your city."