CINCINNATI -- Securing a high-level international friendly opponent was relatively easy for FC Cincinnati last year.
It seemed to work out perfectly that English Premier League side Crystal Palace FC was playing two Major League Soccer teams on back-to-back Wednesdays with an available Saturday in between to match FCC’s open date in the United Soccer League slate.
FCC President and General Manager Jeff Berding found out this time around what a difficult process it can be.
FC Cincinnati announced Tuesday it will be hosting six-time La Liga winner Valencia CF in an international friendly July 24 at Nippert Stadium after months of building relationships, trying to work through schedules and international preseason plans and finally negotiating a contract. The announcement came almost three weeks later than last year’s friendly with Crystal Palace.
“Last year, it just sort of fell in place perfectly with Palace,” Berding said. “This year I think was a lot more representative of the normal process. There was just a lot more work.”
The first part of the puzzle, Berding said, is finding a club that wants to come to North America. Even then, there are complications because teams that do come overseas usually schedule a few games to make the trip worthwhile, so scheduling becomes a bit of a nightmare.
FC Cincinnati tried to partner with other clubs in the United States and Canada to secure an opponent, but all of the parties had to have differing open dates within a certain timeframe to make it work. Then there are the economics that factor in, as not everyone has the luxury of a 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium to accommodate a crowd big enough to make the deal worthwhile for each side.
“In (the United States Soccer League), for many clubs that's a bit of a challenge because you're trying to sell tickets to make the economics work,” Berding said.
A tricky process
Even announcing the opponent became more of a challenge than expected this time. FCC and Valencia came to terms Sunday, so FC Cincinnati scheduled a press conference Monday morning to announce the match.
About an hour before the club was set to go in front of the media and a Facebook Live session, Berding found out that Valencia’s commercial director had boarded a 10-hour flight to Miami, and Valencia was requesting the announcement to be delayed so he could in some way be included in the news distribution.
FCC obliged and instead announced only the league of the opponent and when the match would be and finally revealed the opponent Tuesday.
“Putting together an international friendly is tricky,” Berding said to open the press conference with an apologetic smile.
So tricky it takes a team of people to arrange. Berding is quick to point out he had a lot of help in securing its first two home international friendlies.
The process actually began last year with FCC consultant Mark McCullers -- the former Columbus Crew president who helped FCC on things such as its coach contracts and stadium arrangements with the University of Cincinnati. McCullers set FC Cincinnati up with agent Mark Gibbon, who then on FCC’s behalf reached out to the clubs he thought might be a good fit to come to the Queen City.
“We liked working with him,” Berding said of Gibbon. “He was a professional guy, a guy we had a lot of confidence in and we had other agents pitching us prospectively other friendly opponents but at the end of the day, we had a desire to work with Mark and are thrilled it's worked out again.”
Gibbon brought Crystal Palace last year and helped ensure they were well-accommodated in Cincinnati. He then hosted Berding during his trip to Europe in November, when he visited several clubs for insight into training facilities, personnel, game-day experience and youth academy structure, as well as to build relationships and the FCC brand overseas.
Berding did not visit Spain on that trip, but does still hope the connections he made in England, the Netherlands and Belgium lead to future international friendlies, among other things on the technical side.
It just didn’t work out for any of those clubs he met with to come to Cincinnati this year.
“It's not as simple as FC Cincinnati saying let's bring this club to Cincinnati,” Berding said. “There were some clubs we talked to where, candidly, the manager doesn't want to make the long trip with the team. They would rather stay close to their home base.”
Search was global
FC Cincinnati looked at clubs from all over the world, including from within the Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and from Central and South America, Mexico and Italy. Ultimately, it found its opponent from La Liga, which produced the last four Champions League winners.
Berding said most EPL teams didn’t want to come to the U.S., electing to go to Asia or stay in Europe. Those that did plan to come couldn’t fit Cincinnati into the schedule.
Valencia was already scheduled to make a North American preseason tour with plans to play the New York Cosmos, of the North American Soccer League, in Canada on July 22. Though that was the date FCC had left open for a friendly, it still worked out for the two clubs to meet that following Monday. FC Cincinnati also is scheduled for a league match July 26, so both teams will have a short turnaround between games that week.
“There were a lot of conversations,” Berding said. “Obviously it took us a little longer than last year. I think last year we announced it May 17 and we're two weeks past that. Honestly, there are just fewer clubs coming to North America. I think any club coming to North America is going to have Cincinnati on their radar, but there were just fewer clubs this year, for a host of reasons.”
The success of last year’s friendly with Crystal Palace, a lower-tier EPL team, likely helped Cincinnati lock up another top-league club.
FCC drew 35,061 against Palace last July in an electric environment that then-manager Alan Pardew compared to an FA Cup Final. The friendly outdrew all Major League Soccer games that day.
“It gave us a lot of credibility,” Berding said. “Alan Pardew stood right outside here, a well-respected, long-time English manager and said the environment here at Nippert Stadium was unlike anything he had ever seen, it was like an FA Cup final. I don't know a better recruiting pitch you could have than to have Alan Pardew say that.
“The Crystal Palace summer friendly last year certainly helped make a bold statement about Cincinnati, and we're looking forward to this match doing the same and then some.”
Berding did not want to get into the contract specifics, but confirmed there is an appearance fee involved, which makes filling Nippert Stadium especially of interest.
Bringing in a team like Valencia that fans might not be as familiar with -- Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are the most well-known teams from La Liga -- on a Monday night could make ticket sales a little more challenging this time.
However, Berding said the club is working on some ideas to help generate interest with hopes that the more knowledgeable fans can help spread the word how big of a game this still is.
“Our hope is that fans recognize that while the club, for many, may not be as familiar as an English Premier squad, the fact is some of the best players in the world play in La Liga,” Berding said. “They play a certain style over there that is a little different style than the English Premier League, and I think the style of La Liga really befits the beautiful game, so I think it's going to be a very entertaining night. I think it's a night to celebrate Cincinnati as an international city on the rise.”