CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said earlier this year that the best way for the team to move into the Major League Soccer expansion conversation would be to consistently fill the seats at Nippert Stadium.
They've done exactly that throughout the season, selling more than 10,000 tickets to every home league game, including Monday's afternoon tilt with St. Louis and the regular-season home finale Sept. 17.
But what if the large crowds aren't enough to push Cincinnati into MLS?
Many FC Cincinnati fans have said they were drawn to the first-year franchise in large part because of its MLS ambitions. Would these fans still be satisfied if the United Soccer League is the best Cincinnati can do?
Several fans seated in The Bailey section at the team's last home game, Aug. 24 against Rochester, remain confident FC Cincinnati would still be a hit, regardless of the league.
"I think the fans would be more excited if it was MLS, but as long as they keep up the advertising and letting people know what we've got going on here, the team can be taken seriously in any league," said season-ticket holder Amy Meyer, 27, of East Walnut Hills. "There would just be a big spike if it was MLS. There's no denying that."
MLS already has four of eight planned expansion markets in the works, including the addition of Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC in 2017, Los Angeles FC in 2018 and Miami soon after, pending a finalized stadium plan. Sacramento Republic and St. Louis FC -- two United Soccer League clubs looking to move up -- also appear to be in the pipeline for probable expansion, and according to a recent SI.com report by Brian Straus, MLS likes Detroit's plans for a downtown stadium.
FC Cincinnati representatives have visited MLS headquarters in New York in recent weeks, and though no further information has been released about those meetings, MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche previously told WCPO.com that league officials continue to monitor the progress of the club.
Fortunately for FC Cincinnati, early-season hype surrounding the first-year club never fizzled as skeptics predicted, and Berding doesn't foresee interest falling after Year One.
The club smashed the USL season attendance record after just 10 home games, and its average of 16,742 fans is better than five MLS franchises.
"We think we're definitely building," Berding said. "We've already secured 400 deposits for new season tickets, and those are people who didn't get season tickets this year but wanted to secure their place in line to pick seats for next year.
"We see a strong demand from the ticket point of view. We sold over 6,000 season tickets this year, and we're hoping for 10,000 next year. We understand the key here is to sustain what we've built in Year One. MLS is looking to see Cincinnati sustain interest and support. We've come up with the slogan, 'Rise Together,' and with our fans, we think we're rising together in Cincinnati and showing the rest of the world what a great city this is."
Die Innenstadt supporters' group member Taylor Aho, 24, of Clifton, said the idea of having an MLS team in Cincinnati is exciting; however, he didn't even realize it was a real possibility until about a month into the season.
Like Meyer, he would support FC Cincinnati even without those ambitions.
"As much as we want MLS to happen, if it doesn't, we just want to know how to make the USL a better league," Aho said. "If we don't get in, we focus on how can we make the other teams around us better, and supporting the team and the league is one way we can do that.
"We have a local, hometown team. We've seen a franchise come together, and it's fun to watch. We like the ambition of MLS, though. It shows ownership is serious about making this a success."
Meyer's fiancee, Kristofer Lindquist, said that as long as FC Cincinnati continues the things that have made it successful in Year One, fans will keep supporting the team.
He said the MLS ambitions have just made the club better and more sustainable than past attempts at professional soccer in this city.
"They definitely set up their players and coaches to gear toward that ambition, but just as a soccer fan in general, I'm just excited to have a professional-level team here that people are supporting," said Lindquist, who bought season tickets, along with Meyer, as soon as they went on sale. "Certainly, whether they make it or not, I think the drive they are putting toward that and those ambitions of going to that direction is part of what makes them an exciting team.
"I think if they let it affect how they thought about their coaching staff or how they thought about player choices, certainly interest will fall, but as long as they keep trying to go after that caliber player, I don't think it matters what league they play in. If they keep getting MLS-caliber players and do well in the USL, I don't think that's less exciting than truly making it to MLS."
Meyer said that if fans really want to keep the hope for MLS expansion alive, they just need to be patient and understand that a jump to that level won't happen right away.
In the meantime, FC Cincinnati continues to focus on "being the best USL franchise" it can be, according to Berding. The club already locked up its postseason berth but now seeks a top-four finish to secure a home playoff game.
FC Cincinnati entered the weekend sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
FC Cincinnati is coming off its first consecutive losses this season, dropping road games to Eastern Conference leader New York Red Bulls II and Charlotte, but four of its last five opponents are not in the current playoff picture, and the fifth is against eighth-place Orlando City B on Sept. 17.
"These games are enormously important," Berding said. "We have an opportunity to get 15 points, and if we do that we feel pretty good about securing a top-four finish and earning the opportunity to host a playoff game. We want to break through in the postseason -- there is a big hunger for that in the market -- and having a home playoff game with our fans behind us gives us a great chance to be successful."