COLUMN: FC Cincinnati sellout proves pro soccer has finally arrived in Cincinnati

Why did it take so long?
How Cincinnati became Soccer City USA
How Cincinnati became Soccer City USA
How Cincinnati became Soccer City USA
Posted at 7:04 AM, Jul 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-18 02:33:21-04

CINCINNATI – "Tomorrow. Will. Be. Epic."

That's how FC Cincinnati tweeted that its international friendly with Crystal Palace Saturday is sold out – and it's so right.

And about time.

The first-year soccer club has already raised "The Beautiful Game" to a popularity here often predicted but never approached in the past 45 years – going back to the American Soccer League champion Cincinnati Comets in the early 1970s.

After breaking the United Soccer League attendance record over and over this season, FC Cincy takes on an English Premier League club, Crystal Palace of South Norwood, London, in front of 35,000-plus in Nippert Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday. That's some 12,000 more than its previous high and sure to outnumber the Reds-Brewers crowd down on the river, Zack Cozart's bobblehead notwithstanding.



The rabid FCC crowd will definitely outdo the sleepy Reds fans in fun and enthusiasm.

If the excitement and numbers in the stands and the blue and orange jerseys and T-shirts on the streets haven't convinced you, this should be proof that pro soccer has officially arrived in Cincinnati.

It just took longer than some of us thought.

The FC Cincy players are no less anxious than their fans to put on a good showing. Can they beat a world-class soccer club even without a few of its top stars? That may be too much to ask, but  FCC goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt sees it as an opportunity as much as a challenge.

"For a lot of rookies and young guys on the team it will be a cool experience for them," Hildebrandt told WCPO's Ken Broo at practice on Friday, "and to show that we're on the same level, we're not too far behind."

FCC's large, fanatic and mostly young crowds and the team's success so far – a 10-3-4 league record - have already opened eyes in Major League Soccer, where team owner Carl Lindner III hopes to ascend through expansion by the early 2020s.

Cincinnati is a late entry in a crowded field of hopeful cities, but it's making an impressive audition.

When I was a sports reporter at the late, great Cincinnati Post in the 1970s and sports editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer in the '80s and '90s, my colleagues and I wondered why pro soccer didn't catch on here. Everywhere you looked, kids were playing soccer. There were claims that Cincinnati was top two in the country in youth soccer players per capita. Several youth teams brought home national titles. (Hammer immediately comes to mind).

I remember covering some Comets' games at old Trechter Stadium (where Cincinnati State is now) between 1972 and 1975. It was a dimly-lit and dreary high school football stadium. The team was successful - the Comets won the ASL in their first year and lost the title game the next year; Ringo Cantillo was two-time MVP, and Eddy Roberts led the league in scoring - but the stands were empty. Like the USL, the American Soccer League was third tier. The North American Soccer League had  international stars (Pele came on board in 1975), and the ASL expanded nationwide in hopes of competing with the NASL. But that was a bust. The Comets disbanded after four seasons.

A few angry callers used to blame a lack of newspaper coverage for the failure of a few efforts to make pro soccer go here, but I attributed it to a lack of money and commitment and bad timing. Soccer was not going to knock the Big Red Machine or the Super Bowl Bengals or even high schools off the Sports front page.

Obviously, times have changed. It seems those soccer-playing kids have grown up to be soccer moms and soccer dads. The sport found its footing with U.S. audiences in the 1990s, starting with Major League Soccer in 1993. The long-time success of the women's U.S. national team in the World Cup and Olympics, led by Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, finally put soccer on the front of the Sports section, and having the men's and women's World Cups in the U.S. were a boon, too. But the biggest factors, to me, were the huge expansion of cable TV coverage of soccer and, of course, the Internet.

The first brought the best of soccer worldwide into homes and apartments and bars and college dorms and made untold legions of fans who swear by Messi and Ronaldo (and Cari Lloyd and Alex Morgan) the way my generation used to swear by Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas (Google them, kids).

And social media has created online communities of soccer fans around the world, whether they live in London or Loveland, Buenos Aires or Bridgetown.

Soccer seems to have become The Millennials' Game, embraced by a generation of young people turned off by the laboriousness of baseball, following a generation turned off by its labor strife. Or maybe they wanted a game to call their own. Or maybe they just came to love soccer.

Now comes FC Cincinnati with perfect timing, an owner with purpose from one of Cincinnati's most well-heeled families, an American soccer hero (John Harkes) to coach them, a modernized, welcoming stadium in a picturesque campus setting, and, voila, Cincinnati has become Soccer City USA overnight.

A friend of mine points out that the FCC roster is overwhelmingly white, so I checked. Only three of the 26 players on the team's website roster are black, only two are Hispanic. There are 17 American-born white players and four  from Canada, the UK, Australia and France.

I don't know what that proves any more than what having 10 black players on a basketball court at one time proves.

But I was curious so I checked some USL rosters at random: Bethlehem has 17 black or Hispanic players; Louisville has seven, New York four. FC Montreal has six, but, not surprisingly, it also has an overwhelming number of Canadians – 19.

Harkes said at the beginning of the season that FCC  was allowed to sign seven international players and that it would focus on signing American college players and players with MLS experience. 

Maybe FCC made a conscious decision to pick U.S. players (and a U.S. coach) in its first season so they would connect better with their fans on TV and radio interviews and in public. That would make sense from a promotional standpoint.

Maybe, as a first-year team, their player pool was limited. Maybe they just took the best players they could sign. Probably it means nothing at all.

But I digress. It's time for the city - even us old guys - to celebrate FCC and soccer in Cincinnati.

The club happily announced that it will sell a limited supply of official replica FCC jerseys at Saturday's game (excuse me, match) but advises you to get there early if you want one. Apparently FCC ran out weeks ago and it took longer than expected to get a new supply. Gates open at 5:30 p.m.


The Reds only wish they had a run on jerseys.

Koch Sporting Goods downtown, the place to go for Reds, Bengals, MLB and NFL apparel, has suddenly found itself overrun by soccer crazies.

“It’s been crazy all year, but this week it has taken on a life of its own,” Eric Koch told WCPO's Briana Harper.

Fans are buying everything from T-shirts, hats and jackets to koozies and keychains, he said.

“Whether or not they were on the bandwagon before, I think it’s safe to say everyone is on board now. You see a lot of stuff walking downtown,” Koch said.

Since Cincinnati tends to be negative about anything new, here are some questions about FCC to satisfy the skeptics: How long can this love affair last?  How does FCC keep growing its fan base and maintain its enthusiasm? Will people show up next year to watch the same teams and players?

Getting into Major League Soccer would guarantee long-term success, but what if that takes years? What if that never happens?

But let's put aside the "How" and "What if" for now.

If you haven't gotten on board yet, maybe you should. The FCC love train is leaving the station.

“All indications point to it getting bigger and bigger," Koch said.