FC Cincinnati preseason games create rivalries with MLS expansion foes

Fan: 'I don't remember any excitement like this'

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch wouldn’t be surprised if fans are lining up in the parking garage behind the University of Cincinnati's Gettler Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday to watch the Orange and Blue play Nashville SC.

And that’s just for a preseason game.

The first matchup between the teams is drawing emphasis from fans who were shocked to see Major League Soccer select Nashville ahead of Cincinnati as an expansion club in December.

Nashville is in its inaugural United Soccer League season, while attendance record smasher FC Cincinnati prepares for its third year and still waits to find out if MLS will accept its bid.

There is seating for just 1,400 fans at Gettler Stadium, the home field for UC's soccer teams on West Corry Street. But that will have to do while repairs are going on at Nippert Stadium next door. The team’s regular home will be ready in time for the March 10 matchup with Sacramento Republic FC, another club that has become a rival because of the MLS expansion competition.

“There is that natural rivalry," Koch said. "It's definitely a friendly-based rivalry. It's a lot of mutual respect, and now with Nashville coming in, too, we'll have that exact same relationship. But no question, the fans are a little more excited about those two opponents.”

Season-ticket holder Tim Harris, 45, of Anderson Township, can’t recall preseason games drawing this much attention.

A preseason game at Sacramento last spring drew supporters to local bars for the live stream, but these are the biggest preseason games to come to Cincinnati -- which previously only played host to local college teams and former North American Soccer League competitor Indy Eleven.

Harris plans to go to both exhibitions against Nashville and Sacramento but doesn’t even remember if he went to any preseason games last year.

“I don’t remember any excitement like this over the preseason before,” Harris said. “Last year, (the team) went to Sacramento, so there was not too much excitement other than watching it on TV, but we want to show Nashville and Sacramento how to throw a party. People are talking about it more and more.”

Sacramento, which has been preparing for an MLS bid for almost four years, was the USL attendance leader before Cincinnati joined the league beginning with the 2016 season. FC Cincinnati averaged 21,199 fans last year, while the Republic drew 11,569 – still impressive for a league averaging 4,301 fans.

Nashville has yet to play a real game but drew more than 9,000 fans to its preseason opener Feb. 10 against Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United.

The fact Nashville got into MLS based on projections, rather than proof, has caused some “resentment” among Cincinnati fans, according to Gary Randolph, 35, of Bright, Indiana.

“Nashville fans threw out a men’s national team game where they got 40,000 fans (vs. Guatemala on July 3, 2015), but we’ve done pretty much the same with our Open Cup games,” Randolph said. “They have some attendance things, but some believe there’s some Atlanta crossover and we won’t know how they’ll do in league games yet. We already know Cincinnati draws well. That’s created a little additional tension.”

Harris just wishes FC Cincinnati could host Nashville at Nippert to allow for a real statement from the fans.

The two will play their first regular-season matchups July 7 in Nashville and Aug. 4 in Cincinnati, but by then fans hope FC Cincinnati also will have been awarded an MLS bid.

Then, it won’t be so much of a rivalry born of bitterness but from closeness in proximity and as future MLS competitors.

“I think a lot of FCC fans were shocked they were announced so quickly, and that started a friendly and not-so-friendly banter back and forth,” Harris said. “Especially geographically, Nashville has become a bigger rival than Sacramento.

"I think a lot of people are sympathetic to how Sacramento has been jerked around. They were the front-runner for so long, and we were second or third and now we’re both sitting here waiting, but Nashville came out of nowhere using international friendlies as proof of being a good soccer community, and I think that was frustrating for our fans and Sacramento fans."

Randolph said the belief Cincinnati will get into MLS leads to potential for a long-term rivalry with Nashville. The same could be true for Sacramento, but the two teams likely won’t play as often in different conferences.

Koch wasn’t thinking of MLS potential when he made the preseason schedule, though.

He said the club always tries to play local colleges to help foster community relations, and from there it’s about finding competitive teams close by or ones that are willing to travel.

“With Sacramento, we went there last year so they are coming to us this year,” Koch said. “Nashville and Indy are two new teams, so it's a good opportunity to play professional teams that are close by. 

“Playing who we play in the preseason has nothing to do with them being MLS-USL teams, where the clubs are trying to go. It has to do with who we can get to play and it works with our schedule and it works with their schedule.”

Fans have other reasons to look forward to these preseason games besides the rivalries.

“People are excited about the talent on this team, so it will be good to get them back in Cincinnati for a chance to see them (live),” said Randolph, who went to the game at Indy Eleven last weekend.

Harris said fans that really know the ins and outs of soccer in America are "geeked up" about the players, and are excited to see them.

"It’s been a long offseason waiting for MLS news, so people are excited to just get out and watch soccer,” Harris said. 

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