John Popovich: We're not used to winning, but Cincinnati was just too big for MLS to ignore

Posted at 10:37 AM, May 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-29 17:27:34-04

CINCINNATI -- It’s nice to see some real genuine sports excitement in Cincinnati -- we haven’t seen it for a while.

The Cincinnati Reds and Bengals haven’t given us a charge for years. But now we have some real suspense, some real anticipation, as FC Cincinnati is headed to the big time.

I think most people here are surprised, but they shouldn’t be: This was a slam dunk.

Perhaps we’re surprised and still skeptical because we’re not used to hitting the lottery. We’re used to being ignored.

When the Republicans were looking for a place to put their convention, they ignored Cincinnati because it didn’t have a big, glitzy arena. And they were right. We don’t.

When Amazon was looking for a place to locate its Eastern headquarters, it also ignored Cincinnati because our mass transit system was lacking. That’s also true. Lacking isn’t a strong enough word.

But when it comes to soccer, Cincinnati was simply too big to ignore. Too hungry. Too passionate. Too determined.

Cincinnati was clearly a long shot when the whole expansion process began. In these pop culture-driven times, we didn’t have the sizzle; other cities looked a lot more sexy. Nashville was more chic, Detroit was more big-time, Miami was more Beckham.

What Cincinnati did have was the perfect argument: a strong owner with deep pockets, a game plan with a clear vision and a track record with raucous fans. Not just for one game, not just for one season, but consistent, impressive turnouts that were unrestrained and creative. Once they figured out where to build the stadium, this was a done deal.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was stunned by Cincinnati’s fondness for soccer. During my time, I’ve seen soccer teams named the Kids, the Silverbacks, the Cheetahs and the Riverhawks come and go. I know there have been a lot more than that, but I can’t remember all their names.

When I came to town in 1979, I was told that Cincinnati was the second- or third-biggest area in the country for youth soccer. But as the years went by, I was convinced that people here liked playing soccer, but they just didn’t like watching it. And I was right for many years, until FC Cincinnati came along.

Why was this different? I think the name “Lindner” carried a lot of weight and instant credibility. The home pitch of Nippert Stadium was accessible and gave it a big-time feel. And team officials said in their first news conference that they would pursue an MLS franchise. A defined plan that was utterly ambitious -- imagine that for a sports team in Cincinnati? And finally, maybe all those youth soccer players grew up and had some money to spend.

The fans showed up, and we were all impressed. Then they showed up again. Doubly impressed. Then they kept showing up. In 2016, FC Cincinnati averaged nearly 19,000 fans per game. In 2017, the average climbed to just over 21,000. This year it’s running close to 24,000. Up, up, up.

No other USL team came close to that performance. In fact, only a handful of MLS teams were better. Some big shots sitting up in the MLS ivory tower had to exclaim, “Holy hell, did you see all those crazy fans blowing smoke and creating a commotion in Cincinnati last night?”

Bob Trumpy used to be the blunt voice of “Sports Talk” on WLW. He often would remark, “You’d have to be the village idiot to not make money as an NFL owner.”

I remembered that remark and thought it applies to FC Cincinnati. You would have to be that same idiot hailing from that same village not to recognize what Cincinnati could bring to the MLS table.

What it’ll bring is a huge, knowledgeable, ready-made fan base that doesn’t have to learn what futbol is all about. It’s already infatuated with the game.

This time, Cincinnati couldn’t be ignored.