CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati has made plenty of statements during its first season while drawing various record-breaking crowds.
Now is an especially good time to send another message about the Queen City’s potential to support a Major League Soccer team.
FCC (10-4-4), which stands in third place in the United Soccer League’s Eastern Division, is hoping to sell 25,000 tickets to Saturday’s crucial game against first-place Louisville City FC (12-1-6) — a figure that would break FCC’s own USL single-game attendance record and further prove Cincinnati as a big-time soccer market.
Club officials are putting more emphasis on gaining three points on the Eastern Conference leaders, but the timing also happens to line up with MLS board of directors’ meeting next week before the All-Star Game in San Jose. Plans for expansion will be discussed at the July 27 meeting in the San Francisco Bay area, according to MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche.
The USL also has its summer meeting for league and team executives, scheduled for July 28 in San Jose.
“Our goal was to move Cincinnati into the conversation. I think we’ve accomplished that.”
— Jeff Berding, president, FC Cincinnati
“Our goal was to move Cincinnati into the conversation,” FC Cincinnati general manager and President Jeff Berding said. “I think we’ve accomplished that, and there is really nothing more we can do other than to build on what we’re doing.”
The 20-team MLS hopes to have 28 clubs by the mid-2020s, including four confirmed markets that are expected to be on board by 2020.
Courtemanche says the league has taken note of what FC Cincinnati is doing, and the club’s consistent success at the gates continue to put the spotlight on the city.
“FC Cincinnati and the passionate soccer fans throughout Ohio and Northern Kentucky have made a bold statement to the entire American soccer community,” Courtemanche said. ”We applaud (majority owner) Carl Lindner (III), Jeff Berding, (head coach) John Harkes and the entire organization on the incredible inaugural season. The tremendous crowds have generated headlines, and the team is certainly producing on the field. We are monitoring the progress of the club.”
Nippert Stadium a Potential Hurdle
The large crowds help Cincinnati check off one of the main criteria MLS seeks in expansion markets; however, there are other factors to be considered.
Courtemanche said expansion is conducted “very strategically.” The league’s goal is to secure cities with “a committed local ownership group with the appropriate financial resources, a comprehensive stadium plan where the ownership controls the venue, an appropriate market that is attractive to sponsors, television partners and located in an appropriate geographic location and history of strong fan support for soccer matches and other sporting events.”
Of those standards, the only one that seems to be a question is the stadium. Nippert Stadium has proven more than suitable for FC Cincinnati’s needs: Just last weekend 35,061 fans showed up to watch an international friendly with Crystal Palace, a crowd that surpassed any MLS attendance that day by more than 10,000.
“We’re pleased with how well it’s worked out with Nippert Stadium,” Berding said in a previous interview with WCPO.com. “The facility more than meets our needs and can accommodate crowds suitable for the highest levels of soccer, and there may be other renovations that will be coming down the line to further improve Nippert Stadium as a soccer venue. The University of Cincinnati has been great to work with to make sure our needs are met.”
Record Crowds Impress MLS
Three months ago, Cincinnati wasn’t even in the MLS picture.
During a trip to Sacramento, California, on April 14, MLS Commissioner Don Garber gave reporters a list of five potential cities for the next wave of expansion, and Cincinnati was not then among them.
A week later, after FC Cincinnati set a single-game USL attendance record with a crowd of 20,497 fans showing up for the April 16 game against Louisville, Garber told media members at the Associated Press Sports Editors roundtable that he “would be remiss” if he didn’t point out Cincinnati. According to reports from that discussion, Garber also said he informed Lindner it would take more than two big weekends to prove anything.
Since then, FCC has set three more records and hasn’t fallen below selling 11,000 tickets for a home game — despite playing in a third-tier league that averages fewer than 4,000 fans a game.
“I think it’s a sign of the community’s warm embrace of FC Cincinnati,” Berding said of the various records. “It reaffirms what we’ve said all along that Cincinnati is a big-league soccer town.”
FCC pushed the USL single-game attendance record to 23,375 fans during a May 14 win over Pittsburgh. Then, on July 16, the club broke the attendance record for any soccer game in Ohio with a sellout crowd against England’s Crystal Palace.
On Wednesday, the team’s first midweek, league game at home, FCC sold 16,127 tickets to break the USL’s all-time season attendance record with 164,109 fans through just its first 10 home matches. There are five home games left on the schedule. Sacramento Republic FC, another strong candidate for the jump to MLS, held the previous full-season record at 158,516.
“It is fair to say that FC Cincinnati continues to amaze all of us around the USL, but this definitely is proof that soccer has taken root in this country,” USL President Jake Edwards said in a statement provided to WCPO.com on Friday. “Under Carl Lindner’s leadership and Jeff Berding’s direction, FC Cincinnati is the talk of the soccer world. The people of Cincinnati deserve so much credit for embracing this team in a very passionate way. With five home games still to play, the team has shattered the USL season attendance record, and we couldn’t be any prouder of the team and the response from the people of Cincinnati.”
FCC coach John Harkes has routinely credited the crowds for providing a lift to his players, calling the support “second to none” in his post-game news conference on Wednesday.
“For me and the players, we deeply appreciate the way the city has reacted and the way they come out and support us,” he said. “The colors are there. The fans don’t give up on us, they push us through. For me, it’s been a winning season already on and off the field.”
First Things First: Get Three Points
Berding isn’t playing down the need for a win Saturday, though. After giving up three points to second-place New York Red Bulls II on Wednesday, FCC “can’t afford to lose any more ground,” he said, with the first-place club coming to town.
That’s another big reason why FCC needs fan support Saturday, the last match of three in the River Cities Cup rivalry series. FCC (34 points) is eight points behind Louisville in the Eastern Conference, with New York Red Bulls (12-1-5) just one point out of first.
“We want to host playoff matches, and we need results this week to get them,” Berding said, noting the top four teams in the conference host playoff games. “We didn’t get a result (Wednesday), so we are feeling very motivated to get three points on Saturday, and a loud crowd, another full house, certainly helps us deliver in that environment. It’s an enormous matchup. We can’t fall further points behind them, and we have to use this opportunity to make up some ground.”
Lindner wrote a letter to fans earlier this week, thanking them for their support during the sold-out friendly against Crystal Palace and asking they continue it this week during games against the league’s top two teams.
The last time Lindner addressed fans with such a letter, the record crowd of 23,375 showed up May 14 to watch FCC beat Pittsburgh, 1-0. Given the hype surrounding this one — a rivalry game and meeting of two Top 3 teams — FC Cincinnati is hoping for another record.
“We have a shot at being north of 20,000 for the third time,” Berding said Thursday, several hours after the club announced 15,000 tickets had been sold. “Setting another record would be great, but the biggest thing is we need to get three points against Louisville.”
Both would give Cincinnati added credibility when MLS comes calling.