When English Premier League club Crystal Palace steps onto the pitch at Nippert Stadium for its preseason contest against FC Cincinnati, the hosts are hoping it feels more like a regular-season game.
FCC steps outside of its United Soccer League slate midseason to play the international friendly in front of an expected packed house on July 16. It’s the first time Cincinnati will welcome a Premier League club.
South London-based Crystal Palace, which begins its season in mid-August, stops in Cincinnati as part of a three-city North American tour. It sandwiches the match with FCC between games at Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, all within a six-day span.
“I think they are going to be shocked,” said FCC defender Paul Nicholson, who is from northwest England. “I think it will be a great experience definitely for us, but for them, too, to play in front of that many people, because they are getting ready for their season, and that's what they are used to. It will just make it that much more realistic. If they see it's being done properly and there are all these people that came to see them, maybe it will make them step up their game.”
The Crystal Palace Eagles — who will have a “fanzone” event at Mecklenburg Gardens from 3-6 p.m. on game day — play in a 26,000-seat stadium that fills to near capacity on a regular basis. FC Cincinnati holds the USL single-game attendance record at 23,375 but had topped 25,000 tickets sold by the end of June.
FC Cincinnati general manager/president Jeff Berding said the club was aiming for 35,000 fans in the nearly 45,000-seat Nippert Stadium.
“It’s just another way to show what a great soccer market Cincinnati is,” Berding said. “People seem excited, and we’re excited for the opportunity to bring such high-level competition to Nippert Stadium.”
Nicholson said it “really could make a statement” to the Major League Soccer officials looking at markets for expansion.
MLS commissioner Don Garber told media at the Associated Press Sports Editors meeting in April that Cincinnati would be in the mix, but FCC would need to show it can sustain its crowds over a longer period of time.
“Obviously, we're aiming to be an MLS team in the future,” Nicholson said. “We’re not there yet — we’re just a first-year team — but they are going to see the crowd and hopefully we sell this place out and make it a really good atmosphere.”
For the players, the game itself is a chance to play without pressure.
FCC is no doubt the underdog as a third-tier USL team, despite its impressive start as a Top 5 club, and there are no outside expectations to perform — only hopes.
“I think that's going to be a lot of fun for all of us,” midfielder Ross Tomaselli said. “Obviously, we want to compete and put on a good show for the fans. But it will be nice to have a game where it's just about the pure appreciation of the sport and what it means on a global scale, rather than having to go out there and get a result 100 percent.
"It's a time to appreciate where the sport is at in Cincinnati, where it's at in the U.S., and welcome someone from another part of the world into our city and show them what we have to offer on and off the field.”
Defender Austin Berry and forward Antoine Hoppenot both played Crystal Palace while with the Philadelphia Union in 2014, but it’s a new experience for the other 23 guys on the team.
“It's a good measuring stick,” forward Andrew Wiedeman said. “We have to take into consideration it's their preseason, and they will probably be getting a lot of young guys out there to see how they fit on their roster, but obviously when you get the chance to play a club at that level, it's a good opportunity.
“It will be nice going out and just being able to enjoy it for what it is. You don't have to worry about dropping points, getting points or where you are in the standings because you can just kind of go out and have fun. It's more about the fans and them being able to see a Premier League team and see what that level’s like. For the players, it's a fun opportunity to go out and play relaxed against a high-quality team.”
So, what should the fans expect?
Nicholson probably knows better than most, having seen that brand of soccer growing up, though he was always a Manchester United fan. Crystal Palace finished 15th in the EPL last season and was runner-up to United in the FA Cup final in May.
“The skill set to play in the Premier League is just ridiculous,” said Nicholson, who has been playing soccer in the United States since 2005. “They are going to see really technical players who are very comfortable on the ball, and the Premier League is known for being very fast-paced, so there is a lot of passing at speed and getting behind and being physical. It makes for an exciting game to watch.”