CINCINNATI -- It took a convincing sales pitch to get Paul Nicholson to move his family from Wilmington, North Carolina, for a new United Soccer League team ahead of FC Cincinnati’s inaugural season last year.
In the two years since FC Cincinnati was announced as a USL expansion club on Aug. 12, 2015, everything Nicholson was promised has been delivered -- and far exceeded expectations.
Nicholson, a defender, remains grateful he made the decision to join FC Cincinnati among its first signing class as the club celebrates its two-year anniversary Saturday traveling to play rival Louisville City in the final match of the River Cities Cup. FC Cincinnati, which sits in a playoff position at sixth place in the USL Eastern Division, recognized the occasion last weekend with its league record home crowd of 25,308 during a “Fan Appreciation Night” game against Orlando City B.
“For me, it's been absolutely fantastic as a player,” said Nicholson, a former Wilmington Hammerheads player. “I remember speaking with (President and General Manager) Jeff (Berding) and some of the coaches and they said how they were expecting 10,000 people, and I thought they were crazy. I've been in the league for a while and to think about playing in front of 10,000, it just wasn't even heard of. Then, to have what's actually happened, it's just incredible.”
Prior to last season, Berding had set the goal of reaching 10,000 fans a game but didn’t necessarily expect to reach that figure immediately. The lowest attended match was a rainy Saturday last June when 11,278 fans paid to see FC Cincinnati stretch an unbeaten streak to seven games with a draw against Rochester.
After the club’s successful debut ended in a third-place finish in the division and first-round playoff loss, the throng of about 6,000 season ticket holders grew to more than 11,000 by the start of Year 2, and attendance hasn’t dropped below 15,000 for any league match. Single-game attendance figures have continued to rise, and the club now averages 20,466 fans per USL home game, which is better than 13 Major League Soccer sides.
“I don't know what all they did to bring the fans, but whatever it was, it worked,” Nicholson said. “It really is so unique for a USL team to get this sort of attention. There are MLS teams that don't get anywhere near this stuff. Jeff and everyone down knows what they are doing.”
This season got off to a rocky start after the abrupt firing of former U.S. National Team captain John Harkes as head coach, just before the first preseason game, and for the first time it seemed people were questioning the decision-making of the front office. Harkes had brought immediate legitimacy to the club and was a notable name and face for the franchise.
In less than a year, he had built a roster from scratch and developed a playoff squad that featured two USL Player of the Year winners (current New York City FC forward Sean Okoli and second-year FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt).
But it didn’t take long for new coach Alan Koch -- the former Whitecaps 2 manager -- to win over the fans, thanks in large part to a thrilling Cinderella run through the U.S. Open Cup.
FC Cincinnati topped two MLS clubs en route to becoming the first lower division side since 2011 to make the final four. It hosts New York Red Bulls in the semifinals Aug. 15 -- a game that sold out less than 24 hours after tickets opened up to the general public Tuesday -- for a shot at Sporting Kansas City in the championship Sept. 20.
“I think it's absolutely amazing what this club has done in two years,” Koch said. “It's something you would be very hard-pressed to see any other club anywhere in the world that's grown as quickly as this club has. To see what was put in place the first year and to see how we've built on it this year from a team perspective and from a fan base perspective and from a club perspective, we continue to take steps forward in the right direction.
Koch said even in Miami for the cup quarterfinal FC Cincinnati fans were in attendance, a sign of how far the team has come in a short period.
"I think people would think you were dreaming if you said to them FC Cincinnati after two years would be in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal. Thankfully, some dreams do come true.”
All the while, FC Cincinnati’s push to bring “the highest level of soccer to Cincinnati” also seems to be becoming more of a reality than the fantasy it once sounded like.
The New York Times is the latest publication pointing out Cincinnati as one of the most viable bids among the 12 applicants for MLS expansion, citing “well-heeled” ownership, the club’s success in the USL and a well-formed stadium plan as reasons it leads the pack.
“The timing was right,” Berding said of FC Cincinnati’s rise. “People were hungry for this, and we’ve proven ourselves as a major league soccer market.”
When asked what stands out most about the club’s first two years, Berding had trouble narrowing it down -- and for good reason.
“I never thought we would have our own beer and be building futsal courts," Berding said. "Our merchandise is selling at tremendous retailers, and we have a great store on Fourth Street. I see people wearing our merchandise all over the country. … (On the day of the MLS All-Star Game), the Washington Post talked about the most important soccer match not being in Chicago but in Miami, where we won our U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal. The level of success on the field, being Open Cup semifinalists in our second year, these are all things far beyond what we anticipated.”
FC Cincinnati also has taken measures to ensure its success while playing in the USL, signing Koch and assistant Yoann Damet to multi-year deals last week, as well as extending the contract of midseason pickup Josu Currais, who was being heavily courted by the Indian Super League’s Kerala Blasters.
The club made one in-season signing last year, and while the significant increase in player moves this season (Justin Hoyte, Danni Konig, Kyle Greig, Kevin Schindler and Sem de Wit also were added) has more to do with a different approach from Koch, it also shows FC Cincinnati’s desire to be constantly improving.
“There is a plan, and it's building something,” Koch said. “We don't just go one season at a time and that's it. We have to have a distinct plan for what we're doing now, but also what's the plan for next year and going forward? That’s the sign of a club with true vision, and it’s exciting to be a part of. If this is what we can accomplish in two years, just imagine what lies ahead.”