CINCINNATI -- Ever since FC Cincinnati launched as a member of the United Soccer League in August, club officials have said their vision is to “bring the highest level of professional soccer to Cincinnati.”
But what exactly does that mean?
Apparently, it’s a phrase carefully crafted to bring credit to the strength of the USL but also leave room for a bigger long-term goal.
President and general manager Jeff Berding said right now, the third-tier USL – the largest professional soccer league in the United States and Canada – is the highest level FC Cincinnati can bring to the area; however, the club would like to one day be considered in Major League Soccer expansion.
“We are thrilled to be in the USL, but certainly, as the MLS expands down the road, we would like to be in the conversation,” Berding said. “Hopefully, we will have been successful enough at the box office and on the pitch that we would be a strong candidate, but ultimately, that’s outside of our hands. The MLS decides that.”
Berding said he believes Ohio could support two MLS teams, as Cincinnati would create a strong regional rivalry with Columbus Crew SC, which plays Sunday for a spot in the MLS Cup championship and was one of the original teams when the MLS launched in 1996.
Currently, only Texas, California and New York have more than one team in the 20-member MLS.
“We think there would be an attractive element to it,” Berding said. “A lot of our fans would go up to watch us play in Columbus and probably vice versa.
“There’s a history of derbies, sort of in-town rivalries in England and other parts of the world, so we feel having a rivalry with Columbus, if we ever got to that point, would be very good for the league. But I want to be very clear, we are thrilled to be in the USL. We’ll have a great regional rivalry with Louisville. They did a tremendous job in their first year, they have a great ownership, a great general manager, a great coach, a great team. So, we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. We look forward to competing in the USL this spring.”
That long-term goal, though, likely means FC Cincinnati will not – at least in the near future – officially pair up with any MLS teams.
The USL and MLS announced a multiyear partnership in 2013 designed to enhance the development of professional players in North America, and the two leagues became fully integrated this year with all 20 MLS clubs either partnering with current USL clubs or entering their own “2” club in the USL.
Nine USL teams in 2016 will be MLS-operated franchises, referred to as “2s.” Columbus is not one of those teams, but the Crew did have a partnership with the Austin Aztex this year, and Berding noted FC Cincinnati could provide a similar option for them and other MLS teams that don’t operate a “2” in the MLS.
“We’ve been in talks with a number of teams about particular players, and maybe FC Cincinnati would be a good development environment for their players who may not be ready to contribute as part of an active MLS squad,” Berding said. “Columbus certainly would be a natural potential partner in that regard, but I don’t believe at this point our plan is to be an official ‘2’ to any particular squad.”
“The other thing is any of the ‘2s’, it’s very clear where they stand,” Berding added. “They are sort of the Triple A squad to a Major League team. I don’t know we want to be deemed a ‘2.’ ”
David Wagner, USL vice president of competition and operations, said that prior to the formal partnership between the USL and MLS, the USL’s Harrisburg City Islanders had a working relationship with the Philadelphia Union, and the two clubs would collaborate on business and technical issues together.
Teams found that kind of relationship beneficial, which led to the formal process developing.
“Sometimes the teams had a prior relationship, staff members on different teams might know each other, or the teams were simply a good fit from a regional standpoint,” Wagner said.
The leagues would help teams looking to form a partnership, Wagner said, but ultimately, it is up to the clubs to come to an agreement. The base of the agreement, he said, is sending a minimum number of players on loan to the USL side, and then the teams can agree to other things as they see fit.
From a coaching perspective, head coach John Harkes said he can see the advantages to having an affiliation with an MLS club in terms of the player personnel. However, he has concerns about inconsistencies it would bring the team, especially if a player was called up midseason.
“From our side and the technical aspect of the game, as coaches we want to make sure we have full control and an understanding of a culture and an environment we are building,” Harkes said. “As a new club, it’s very difficult, sometimes, to have an affiliation where you’re not sure if the player is coming to you on loan or if the player is staying with the main MLS soccer club. Sometimes that back and forth breeds inconsistency in the dressing room and on the field. It’s very important when you talk about an affiliation with another club that everyone is on the same page in what the expectations are. That’s the key. I’ve seen it work, and it’s gone over well. I’ve seen other clubs struggle with it.”
Harkes, a former MLS and U.S. men’s national team player, has been reaching out to his contacts within the MLS as part of the recruiting process as he tries to build a roster of about 24 players from scratch. He finished his career with the Crew in 2002 and said he wouldn’t be opposed to a working relationship with the club; however, nothing yet has been established.
“There could be conversations we have with the Crew,” Harkes said. “Currently, we’re not, but it’s November and things change in the offseason for a lot of clubs and what they want to do, so we’ll see.”
The Crew plays the New York Red Bulls on the road Sunday in the second game of the Eastern Conference finals. They won the first game this past weekend at home 2-0.