CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati continues to grab national attention with its deep run through the U.S. Open Cup as the last remaining non-Major League Soccer team among the final four.
MLS owners and executives have taken notice, too.
The second-year United Soccer League club’s success in the tournament even became a topic of discussion at the MLS board of directors meeting Wednesday in Chicago, according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
Garber spoke to media in a live-streamed press conference prior to the MLS All-Star Game and went as far as to call Cincinnati one of the “very energized” markets in the competition for an expansion bid. Here are the top 9 takeaways from the meetings in Chicago that affect FC Cincinnati:
1. Miami making strides
David Beckham’s plans to bring MLS to Miami are finally starting to become a reality after the board voted to authorize Garber and the expansion committee to begin finalizing details on making it happen.
Garber said that doesn’t mean the league is announcing MLS Miami right now, but those involved in the decision-making are confident it will happen, possibly even by the end of the summer. Miami, which is still working on its stadium plan, would become team No. 24, meaning there are still four spots in the league’s plans to grow to 28.
So, what does that have to do with Cincinnati?
Well, Miami was originally expected to enter the league along with Los Angeles FC in 2018, but now it’s looking like 2020 is more likely. So MLS will have an odd number of teams until then unless one of the two expansion clubs set to be announced by the end of the year is able to jump in sooner. Garber has already said that Nippert Stadium works in the short-term, so if Cincinnati can finalize long-term plans for a soccer-specific stadium, FC Cincinnati theoretically could make the transition before 2020 and that could help win a bid. Teams No. 25 and 26 are expected to begin play in 2020.
2. Queen City reigns
Cincinnati was mentioned multiple times as a city that is impressing.
Garber said FC Cincinnati was discussed in the board meeting with owners: “I will say what is happening in Cincinnati is remarkable. … Both on and off the field, we talked about it a bit when we presented the Miami section at our board meeting. Two games in the U.S. Open Cup at 30,000 (attendance) is just something they should be very proud of. Carl Lindner and Jeff Berding are doing an amazing job.”
It’s interesting this came up in the Miami section of the meeting, perhaps pointing back to the idea Cincinnati could be ready sooner than others.
In another portion of the press conference, he named Cincinnati as one of “four (markets) that over the last couple months have been very energized.”
“We are not ranking markets,” Garber said. “We've been very clear about that, but Sacramento putting a shovel in the ground this week was a great move on their part and Kevin Nagle was here this week, and we're all very pleased he's made that commitment. Detroit just got one step closer having access to the jail site, that those of you who follow closely know is the preferred site for an MLS expansion team. That got a lot of energy and attention in Detroit. I'd say Cincinnati and Nashville have all done really extraordinarily well.”
3. Ranking but not ranking
Though Garber says the expansion committee is not ranking markets, it sure seems like the opposite is true.
Sacramento, Cincinnati and Detroit have long been considered among the favorites, and Garber seems to continually back that up in his consistent praise for the cities. He did follow his comments about the four most energized markets with remarks about meetings in Charlotte and Raleigh last week and an upcoming visit to Tampa.
“While (some) have increased buzz, someone else comes in and has some buzz, and we're just going to move them all as close as we can until we have the best possible two to decide on,” Garber said Wednesday.
Just last year, Garber said Sacramento getting into MLS was just a matter of “when, not if,” and he told FC Cincinnati fans in a town hall meeting in November that the Queen City “deserves to be in MLS.”
On the other end of the spectrum, a few markets seem to have fallen to the wayside. In late March, Garber said at a rally in St. Louis that the city likely wouldn’t get an MLS franchise if a resolution to finance a soccer-specific stadium didn’t pass, and MLS sent out a statement after the vote failed, calling it a significant setback. There has been little talk of St. Louis since.
4. Importance of the stadium reinforced
Garber praised Sacramento Republic FC for breaking ground last week on the site set to become its new stadium, as the club -- led by chairman and CEO Kevin Nagle -- has decided not to wait to find out if it is selected.
That just reinforces the importance of getting a new stadium, as it could make or break a market’s chances to win a bid.
FC Cincinnati already has a memorandum of understanding to put a soccer stadium in Newport but is still trying to nail down the public-private partnership to finance the $200 million facility, of which ownership will cover about half the cost.
Club President and General Manager Jeff Berding said at a June meeting with fans -- in which the stadium designs were unveiled -- that FC Cincinnati hopes to have the stadium plans nailed down by the end of the summer with the goal of breaking ground in spring of 2018.
The sooner plans are finalized, the better chances Cincinnati will have.
5. No site preference
When asked if he has a preference for any of the stadium sites FC Cincinnati is looking at, Garber said the expansion committee likes all three (Newport, West End/Over-the-Rhine or Oakley).
FC Cincinnati took MLS’s obvious preference for a presence in the urban core and downtown areas to heart in narrowing the search to those three locations, so it doesn’t seem to matter where the stadium goes, just as long as it gets done.
“We don't have a preference for one,” he said. “Their stadium renditions have been fabulous, and I think Cincinnati has done an awesome job. I'm very impressed with what they've put together.”
6. Timetable not a concern
MLS gave less than six weeks for cities to put together their official application for expansion back in December when it announced the process and set a Jan. 31 deadline, and interested clubs basically have this year to finalize stadium plans.
Some markets, such as Sacramento, were already further ahead in their planning, but Cincinnati was left scrambling after completing its first season and still holding out hope Nippert would work for MLS.
Garber said he is not concerned by the lack of time allotted for bidders to get all their ducks in a row, though.
“We only need two when we make that decision in December to select from,” Garber said. “There are a lot of moving parts here. In addition to everything else we have going on, we have 12 cities we are visiting with and meeting with regularly and speaking to their owners and meeting with their political bodies and trying to move all of them as far as we possibly can so we can make the right decisions in early December. So, I'm not concerned about the timing in Cincinnati.”
Basically, MLS has options and Cincinnati can wait and try to get one of the final two spots later if necessary.
7. Open Cup trial
With FC Cincinnati still alive in the U.S. Open Cup and set to host a semifinal Aug. 15 against the New York Red Bulls, the club has one, maybe two more chances to show it can compete with MLS teams now.
FC Cincinnati already made it through in-state rival Columbus Crew and the Chicago Fire, which was the hottest team in MLS at the time, and delivered both in the stands and on the pitch. The USL playoff contenders have several former MLS players and others who are likely getting looks now for future contracts, and the club knows how to draw a crowd.
A throng of 30,160 fans turned out for the fourth-round game against Columbus Crew SC on June 14, and 32,287 fans attended the June 28 game against Chicago, surpassing the second largest attendance in Open Cup history (31,311) that Seattle Sounders FC drew for the 2010 final against the Crew. Seattle holds the all-time record at 35,615 for the 2011 final.
A sellout could be in store for the semifinals, despite an increase in ticket prices as dictated by U.S. Soccer. FC Cincinnati’s largest ever crowd was 35,061 for the international friendly with Crystal Palace last summer, which was considered a sellout.
8. Decision day
MLS has said it will name the next two teams for expansion by the end of the year, but Garber made it clear that decision will be made in December.
He said there will be a process with the expansion committee in October and November so a vote can take place at the next board meeting at the MLS Cup finals in early December. So far, the league remains on track with those plans, and teams No. 27 and 28 will still be announced at a later date, to be determined.
All 12 of the applicants had representatives at the events surrounding the All-Star Game this week, and MLS continues to visit cities and meet with club executives.
9. The final four
Garber started to refer to the expansion process as selecting “the four next” teams; however, he quickly corrected himself and said MLS really considers these as “the four last” teams to enter the league.
He’s said before that 28 is a good number before the talent pool starts getting too watered down.
So, as it stands, MLS is making it so cities can’t just wait until another wave of expansion comes along a few years down the road. Whether any other applicants are admitted after this year, to be considered for the final two spots, is unclear (Louisville appears to think it will still have a chance to be considered); however, it seems MLS likes having options.
“Interest in being an investor and owner and operator in MLS is at an ultimate high,” Garber said. “… We are blessed to have so many great options.”