Let’s face it: Cincinnati sports fans really don’t like any team from Pittsburgh.
So why should it be any different on the pitch for the Queen City’s professional soccer team?
FC Cincinnati is pumping up this weekend’s match against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds as an “Orange Out,” and an opportunity for local fans to rally around the team in the newest sports rivalry between the cities connected by the Ohio River.
The club — through a challenge from majority owner Carl Lindner III — is aiming to draw a United Soccer League record-breaking crowd of 25,000 fans to the match, which kicks off at 4 p.m. Saturday at Nippert Stadium.
“In the 19 years I spent with the Bengals, Pittsburgh week held a different level of intensity,” FC Cincinnati president Jeff Berding said. “Rivalries are a fun part of sports, and we have two regional rivalries with Louisville and Pittsburgh and want to play that up. The Orange Out adds another level of fun, and 25,000 fans would add to that as well.”
There also is another motivating factor behind that number, which would top the USL record of 20,418 that FC Cincinnati set last month in its second home game against Louisville.
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber recently told media at the Associated Press Sports Editors meeting that St. Louis and Sacramento are the leading candidates for the next round of expansion and listed Detroit, San Diego, San Antonio, Austin and Cincinnati as other candidates, in that order of priority.
MLS hopes to expand to 28 teams by 2020, and four markets already have been established. That leaves four spots for seven currently contending cities. FC Cincinnati has made its MLS ambitions known since launching in August.
Berding said FC Cincinnati is on pace to at least break the record if it gets a walk-up crowd similar to that of the Louisville game. Sales have been “brisk” this week, he said, and more than 20,000 pre-sale tickets had been accounted for by Friday.
Berding said it’s important for Cincinnati to consistently show it can support an MLS franchise, and 25,000 fans would help send that message.
“That was a goal number Carl Linder thought appropriate to erase any doubt this is a top pro soccer community,” he said. “There are some out there who have suggested that maybe the first two games were flukish. Carl and the whole organization take pride in Cincinnati and believe this is a strong soccer market. (A crowd of) 25,000 likely would be a top soccer-attended match in the U.S. this weekend.”
FC Cincinnati (4-2-2), which sits in fourth in the USL Eastern Conference table, drew 11,381 fans to its last home game, a draw against Wilmington on April 30. That was the lowest attendance for the club so far but still well above the league average and on target with the original goal of 10,000 fans a game.
Three days later, Lindner wrote an open letter to fans — posted on FC Cincinnati’s social-media accounts — thanking them for their support and challenging the community to come out in droves on Saturday.
“It’s been electric, exciting, everything we envisioned — and more,” he wrote. “We are so grateful for your support as we work to add another jewel in the crown of our Queen City.
“Now, THE rivalry comes to our home. Pittsburgh comes to town on May 14, and we are inviting you, Cincinnati, to help us give them a Queen City welcome. Let’s show the world we can fill Nippert Stadium with 25,000 fans in the bright orange of FC Cincinnati.”
FCC drew just under 15,000 fans to the home opener April 9 in cold weather, then broke Sacramento Republic’s record of 20,231 fans the following week in warm, sunny conditions.
“We have a good chance (to get 25,000),” Berding said. “When we had 20,000-plus for Louisville, we had an extraordinary walkup crowd. We had nice weather that day, so that helped, and the forecast looks dry right now for kickoff. Hopefully people make us a part of their Saturday afternoon.”
Fans will be given an “orange item” at the gate as part of a giveaway, Berding said — without elaborating except to say it is not an item of clothing, but it will help them cheer on the team.
FC Cincinnati is encouraging fans to wear orange and will extend the “Orange Out” onto the field of play by debuting a primarily orange third kit. A reverse of the blue home jerseys with orange backs, the new shirt will be complemented by blue shorts and orange socks.
Orange is a color more familiar to Pittsburgh fans who have visited the Queen City during the NFL season, and FCC is using that as a way to help promote the match.
The club announced earlier this week that seven players from the Cincinnati Bengals — Domata Peko, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Vontaze Burfict and Kevin Huber — will serve as honorary captains at the game. Many of them have taken to social media to help promote the rivalry match and to encourage their fans to show up Saturday.
“That’s a pretty good statement, to have their support,” Berding said. “With the Bengals in the light, hopefully that spurs another strong walkup.
“We want to start a new home winning streak Saturday, and the show of support makes a difference for those guys on the field.”