CINCINNATI - Taylor Twellman says he has a hard time imagining Major League Soccer expanding without Cincinnati.
FC Cincinnati hopes Twellman, the ESPN lead analyst covering MLS, is right.
The first-year club made its pitch to MLS commissioner Don Garber on Tuesday, as he was scheduled to spend the day checking out Cincinnati as a possible expansion market.
FOLLOW LIVE: MLS commissioner visits Cincinnati.
Part of that visit included a town hall-style meeting at Woodward Theater with fans asking questions of Garber and Twellman serving as the emcee.
— Laurel Pfahler (@LaurelPfahler) November 29, 2016
The MLS expansion committee meets again Dec. 15 to lay out a timeline and process for bringing in new markets.
“I think if we’re talking about a first division of 28 teams, that’s a struggle for me if FC Cincinnati is not on that list," Twellman said Tuesday morning while visiting FC Cincinnati headquarters on Fourth Street in downtown. "Because your opening season of a club, if you’re averaging what they are – the Open Cup game was like 8,500 on a weeknight ... and you're looking at 20,000-plus against Pittsburgh – the fans are there,”
"There's an organic feel to this. It's at Nippert Stadium. The soccer fan in 2016 is a more educated, a more aware fan than 10 years ago, so when Don Garber mentions the expansion teams in April, or whenever he did, and then looks at what they did in their debut season, he's a smart business man. He understands the equation and says, 'Wait a minute.’
“I'm looking at the numbers, I'm seeing the way this city has embraced FC Cincinnati as their third franchise, I would be shocked if FC Cincinnati five, 10 years down the road, doesn't give the Cincinnati Reds a run for their money."
Twellman, a former MLS all-star, was impressed enough with FC Cincinnati’s debut season that he agreed to emcee the town hall meeting on behalf of the club and ESPN.
He said he had planned to attend a game this summer but a work obligation prevented him from using the tickets he had secured.
— Laurel Pfahler (@LaurelPfahler) November 29, 2016
“I have a real admiration for organic, grassroots type of efforts to grow the game,” Twellman said. “We're talking about a sports town (where) for me growing up mainly in St. Louis, I hated the Cincinnati Reds. I'm not a Cincinnati Reds fan ... But soccer in Cincinnati was always one of those things when I was growing up that was like, 'Uh, maybe it could work.'
"I am pleasantly shocked, pleasantly surprised, and I am here out of respect. I think FC Cincinnati, for what they did in their debut season, is remarkable. It's a great example, and my hometown in St. Louis is another one, that when you only have two major sports in that downtown, you've got a real landscape to have a real successful soccer club, and I think Cincinnati is a great example of that."
At the same time, Twellman doesn’t see FC Cincinnati remaining at Nippert Stadium in the long term if it's serious about moving up to the first division of U.S. soccer.
MLS hopes to expand from 20 to 28 teams by the mid- to late-2020s and has three of those markets set with a fourth hanging in the balance. Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC will join the league in 2017, Los Angeles FC in 2018, and Miami is expected to follow, pending a finalized stadium plan that continues to fall through.
FC Cincinnati worked its way into the conversation with its multiple USL attendance records and on-field success, which included a playoff appearance as the Eastern Conference’s third-place team. Its average attendance of roughly 17,296 fans was better than five MLS franchises and ranked 16th among all levels in the U.S. and Canada – and that doesn’t even include the 30,187 fans that attended the club’s first-round playoff game or the crowd of 35,061 that attended a friendly against English Premier League side Crystal Palace.
Twellman said Nippert works as a backup until plans for a new soccer-specific stadium can be arranged, but the stadium is an important factor in the club’s long-term success, and MLS knows that.
“For every dollar spent at Nippert, how much goes to FC Cincinnati?” Twellman said. “In the long-term, I'm not sure that works, and what MLS has shown is when you're not paying rent, you make more money. It depends on what that relationship is with Nippert. The structure of Nippert is set up pretty darn good, 30,000-plus. FC Cincinnati has drawn 25,000 at times. The worst attendance was just under 12 (thousand).
“It's got to be grass. I don't care what anyone tries to convince me, and I know the Atlantas of the world, but I'll always be on record, if you're going to do this right, it's got to be a grass facility, so if you're renting it and you're working with University of Cincinnati football, that's a predicament. But I look at it, the location is downtown. The setting of 30,000, it's set up pretty darn good, so if that's your backup, Jeff and ownership, if you give them time, I'm confident with their political backgrounds, they will be able to figure out a stadium site.
"If Nippert is your hold-over, it's pretty good.”
Twellman didn’t want to rank any market ahead of another in terms of how the back half of the expansion process could develop, but he noted Sacramento “has shown everything.” But Sacramento might be held up by San Jose’s contract, which may possibly prevent other teams from popping up in close proximity.
He doesn’t see Columbus being a setback for Cincinnati because regional rivalries are good for the sport, and he also compared FC Cincinnati to the Portland Timbers in terms of success in small markets. Cincinnati would be among the smallest markets if added to MLS, but Twellman doesn’t see that being a hindrance.
The demand is here, and soccer fans will come for the unique game-day experience the sport provides, he said.
“Everyone watches English Premier League and not every single team is in London,” Twellman said. “If it's a real environment, and it's a real game, and it's played the right way and sold the right way, and it's organic, the fan in New York is going to watch a game. This sport is unique in that.
"Business people will tell you differently and they will show you numbers and metrics, I'm telling you as a soccer fan, I don't care where I'm living. If FC Cincinnati is 30 in the television market, but their product is quality, the fans, the environment, the game, they are trying to play the right way, they are trying to produce players for the U.S. National team, I could care less if they are playing on Mars.”