CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati already has left an impression on Major League Soccer -- enough so that its commissioner scheduled a visit to check out in person what could be one of the league’s next potential expansion markets.
However, less than a month before Don Garber’s scheduled tour of Cincinnati on Nov. 29, the second-year United Soccer League club, city and local supporters are busy trying to make sure he leaves with a lasting impression.
The local community’s biggest chance to contribute to that is during a town hall-style meeting, which will take place 4-5 p.m. Nov. 29 at Woodward Theater.
“It’s an honor for him to come here,” FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding told WCPO.com. “He doesn’t visit every city that wants to be considered for expansion, so we are pleased we will have the opportunity to show why this is such a great soccer town and a market that could support Major League Soccer.
“The town hall meeting will be a big part of that and a chance for the local community that has supported us so well through our first year to come out and be a part of the process in a way.”
FC Cincinnati is seeking to be included in future MLS expansion plans, as the league hopes to grow from 20 to 28 teams by the mid- to late-2020s.
MLS already has four of eight planned expansion markets in the works, including the addition of Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC in 2017, Los Angeles FC in 2018 and Miami expected to follow, pending a finalized stadium plan. Sacramento Republic and St. Louis FC -- two United Soccer League clubs looking to move up -- also appear to be in the pipeline for probable expansion.
FC Cincinnati worked its way into the conversation with its impressive inaugural season -- at the gates and on the field, as the club set multiple USL attendance records and made the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s third-place team. Its average attendance of roughly 17,300 fans is better than five MLS franchises at the end of the regular season.
Representatives from FC Cincinnati have been to MLS headquarters in New York, but Garber’s visit to the Queen City will enable him a chance to tour the city and get an up-close look at the club’s operations at Nippert Stadium.
The club has been trying to spread the word about Garber’s visit through its “Cover the City” campaign, which it launched last week. As part of the campaign, FC Cincinnati provides a save-the-date magnet and encourages fans to place them in unique spots around the city and post photos on social media with #MLS2CINCY.
“We’ve had a strong response with the campaign, and fans have been asking where they can find the magnets,” Berding said, noting the first order of 1,500 magnets already had to be re-filled with another order.
Among some of the most memorable posts Berding has seen on Twitter was a photo of a newborn baby along with the message “Born to love FC Cincinnati. Another one included the magnet with a photo of garden gnomes, and Berding said some are showing up in Europe now.
Fans who attend the town hall meeting Nov. 29 will have a chance to ask Garber questions. Doors to the Woodward Theater, located at 1404 Main St., will open at 3 p.m. to the general public, but the event also will be streamed live at MOTR Pub, Rhinehaus and Mr. Pitiful’s, which are all located within walking distance of the theater.
According to Berding, Garber will meet with FC Cincinnati majority owner Carl Lindner III and other club business leaders and will tour the urban core of the city along with civic leaders, such as Mayor John Cranley, prior to the town hall meeting. Garber should arrive at Lunken Airport around 9 a.m.
Berding expects to see the club's orange and blue colors spread throughout the city to help show how widespread the support is for FC Cincinnati.
“Certainly, we are working with the city to show Don Garber that Cincinnati is an attractive city for Major League Soccer,” Berding said. “We have had several business working with us to display the FCC brand or colors in some fashion on that day and the days leading up to the visit.”
The club supporters groups also hope to make their presence felt beyond the town hall meeting.
According to The Pride supports group president Payne Rankin, contingents of fans will be strategically placed near landmark visits that will be part of the tour, tentatively planned for noon-2:30 p.m. that day. A pub crawl also is in the works that morning and into the afternoon, winding up at Rhinehaus around 2:45 p.m., and there likely will be a tifo on display throughout the events.
The Pride, support group Die Innenstadt and FC Cincinnati officials met last week to coordinate plans. For the fans, it’s their way of showing their support extends beyond The Bailey at Nippert Stadium.
“I don’t think our first-year attendance is enough to rest on to make it into MLS,” Die Innenstadt President Ryan Lammi said. “We still have to prove ourselves on the field and off, and part of that is showing excitement for the team even when the team isn’t playing. This will be an important step to joining MLS, if that ends up being the case.”
Lammi said interest in Garber’s visit seems relatively high among the most passionate fans; however, he believes momentum will pick up in next few weeks as the date approaches, and “it will be the talk of the town.”
The visit could go a long way in determining Cincinnati’s soccer fate but FC Cincinnati officials could benefit from the timing of it.
The MLS expansion committee is expected to meet the second week of November to discuss an expansion timeline and procedures for determining the next wave of markets to be included, and the discussion will continue at the December Board of Governors meeting after the MLS Cup.
Perhaps FC Cincinnati can make itself a bigger part of those discussions after the visit.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to plant our position into their minds and get thinking about Cincinnati as an expansion market,” Lammi said.