CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding has always talked about the strong “soccer movement” in this region.
Cincinnati’s second-year United Soccer League team announced Friday that it would host a U.S. Women’s National Team friendly with New Zealand on Sept. 19 and also has signed on as the official jersey sponsor for the girls Cincinnati Development Academy program which kicks off its first season Labor Day weekend.
Berding said both announcements show FC Cincinnati’s efforts to promote the women’s game and support young female soccer players in this area.
“FC Cincinnati's commitment to growing soccer, to building the soccer movement goes beyond the men's game,” Berding said. “When we look out at an FC Cincinnati match, we're thrilled to see boys and girls of all ages at our matches and engaged, cheering, chanting, coming down to the wall to get autographs after the game, participating in all our activities all the way through the end of the final whistle.”
The fact is FC Cincinnati needs the support of women and young girls just as much as the local male population while it continues to grow its fan base and plan for potential inclusion in Major League Soccer expansion.
The club’s efforts to show support in return are crucial to its own success.
FC Cincinnati is among 12 applicants for MLS plans to bring in four new clubs by the mid-2020s. Two expansion cities will be announced by the end of the year, and Cincinnati has been on the radar since its successful inaugural year, breaking several United Soccer League attendance records.
Of FC Cincinnati’s 6,000 season ticket holders last year, 27 percent were female, according to an impact study conducted by the club. That percentage likely grew this year with more than 11,000 season tickets sold and crowds averaging just under 20,000 through 10 home USL games. FC Cincinnati did not have any demographics available regarding the fan base attending 2017 games.
“The level of support we get when we look in the stands and see all the young girls and moms who were maybe players themselves, it creates the foundation by which we've been so successful,” Berding said.
Cincinnati has hosted the U.S. Women’s National Team three times, including at Galbraith Field in 1993 and at Paul Brown Stadium in 2004 and 2008.
In 2004, the Women’s National Team, featuring St. Ursula Academy grad Heather Mitts, routed New Zealand 6-0 in front of 18,806 fans as part of a 10-city celebration tour after the U.S. won the Olympics. In 2008, a slighter crowd of 5,877 watched the U.S. women and South Korea play to a scoreless draw.
A home-grown star
Cincinnati native and Team USA midfielder Rose Lavelle, a 2013 graduate of Mount Notre Dame Academy, said soccer has come a long way in this region since then, though.
She was 9 when she attended that 2004 game at Paul Brown Stadium, dreaming of one day playing in the shoes of then-U.S. stars like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. Now, at 22, Lavelle looks forward to the chance to play in front of a much bigger crowd than she witnessed that day.
“It's a great time to bring women's soccer back to the city, especially with so much excitement,” said Lavelle, who was among the throng of 32,287 fans at FC Cincinnati’s U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 game against Chicago Fire SC on June 28.
Lavelle wants other young players to be inspired by the presence of the U.S. Women’s National Team in Cincinnati and applauded FC Cincinnati’s efforts to include the female population in its mission to help grow the game.
“It's exciting because it's not just a men's soccer movement,” Lavelle said. “It's a full soccer movement, so it's exciting to bring women's soccer here, especially when there is so much buzz and passion for the sport right now, and the partnership with the DA is exciting too because it just shows that the women's game is continuing to grow in this city.”
Sponsorships will help
CDA technical director Bobby Puppoine said FC Cincinnati’s sponsorship, which also includes the proceeds from FC Cincinnati specialized license plate fees, will help offset costs for young girls who play on any of the four academy teams, which feature 16-18 players on each roster ranging from the U-14 age group up to U-19.
US Soccer established more than 70 clubs as part of its development academy system, and Cincinnati was announced about 18 months ago as one of first 25 to be selected because of the region’s “history of player development and ability to grow players into elite athletes that can play collegiately and professionally,” according to Puppoine.
“We're a city that is able to support both men's and women's soccer,” Puppione said. “We've had the success of men's players who have gone on to play collegiately and professionally and obliviously we have the success of women's players just like Rose Lavelle.”
Berding said with FC Cincinnati defenders Austin Berry and Matt Bahner both hailing from Cincinnati, it’s especially easy to realize young boys in this area have some clear role models to look up to.
Now the team can feel good about also having a positive impact on helping young girls achieve their goals, as well.
“This is progress,” Berding said. “Each day we look at how we can build this soccer movement, so we're very excited to support the girls in this region and I know every time our players go out and sign autographs and we have an opportunity to meet the young girls that are coming to our games and are so excited, we'll feel good that we're giving an opportunity and pathway to realize their dreams and that they know there is no backseat to the boys and FC isn't just about the boys.”