CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati is a week away from officially christening its newly widened field at Nippert Stadium in front of a crowd.
The second-year United Soccer League club finishes a three-game road stretch to open the season Sunday at Bethlehem Steel FC before heading into the home opener April 15 against St. Louis FC.
A team-financed $2 million renovation to stretch the field by five yards in width and length -- to 115 yards by 75 yards -- recently was completed after months of work. FC Cincinnati began training on the larger pitch for the first time this week.
“We're very pleased with the renovations,” FC Cincinnati President and General manager Jeff Berding said. “We're very grateful to our partners at the University of Cincinnati for giving us the opportunity to work to improve the field. It's certainly going to allow more room for players on the field without fear of running into the wall.
"For FC Cincinnati, it gives us more room on the field for our quality players to work the ball, possess the ball and get into attacking positions and ultimately score more goals.”
Ultimately, the main motive behind the project was to meet FIFA and Major League Soccer regulations that require the larger pitch.
FC Cincinnati submitted a bid for MLS expansion consideration in January. The bigger field helps the club in that quest to win one of the four remaining spots in the league’s plans to grow to 28 teams, although it likely will need a new, soccer-specific stadium in the long run.
If the team leaves Nippert for any reason at the end of its current three-year lease, FC Cincinnati would be responsible for returning the stadium’s lower seating bowl to its previous configuration. About 1,200 seats were removed to expand the field and a new brick wall was erected beyond the extended artificial turf surface to replace the old wall built in 1996. The added space on the football sidelines also creates a safety buffer in the south endzone corners in addition to increasing the playing field for soccer.
UC’s Planning, Design and Construction office oversaw the project with Cincinnati-based MSA Architects-Michael Schuster Associates serving as architect and Sunesis Construction serving as general contractor.
“It was very important (to get to MLS/FIFA regulations),” Berding said. “It was the onus for why we made the improvements. We wanted to be in compliance with MLS and FIFA guidelines, which require the larger field, and we're thrilled we have this opportunity.”
The USL does not require the larger pitch, as some teams are limited to smaller facilities, but the league considers it a “best practice” that it encourages teams to meet, according to Berding.
FC Cincinnati players say they can already see a difference after two days training on the field this week, including their first 11 v 11 session on Thursday.
“It makes a big difference,” second-year FC Cincinnati midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin said. “I think it will help our style of play, our attacking style of possession-based soccer we like to play, so I think it's going to be a big advantage for us going forward into the season.”
Midfielder Kenney Walker, a second-year starter for the club, said the added space will give the players more time on the ball.
“It depends on how you want to use the field,” he said. “If you want to use the flanks and get service in, it helps because there is more space wide, but it's going to also help if teams come here and try to sit in, we'll have more space to try to play around them or stretch them out and potentially play through them at the same time.”
Although new coach Alan Koch never saw the field in person before the changes, he said the club should benefit from the added space. His job is to make sure the players are fit enough to manage the extra running that will come with an increased field size, but he doesn’t see that being a problem.
It’s easy to see the newly created space just looking at the field, although it only increased by 2.5 feet on each sideline, because the extended turf is a darker green than the rest of the pitch. Players would notice it without the color difference.
“The different dimensions you play on, it's one of the first things you notice when you play away is what the field looks like and how big it is,” FC Cincinnati second-year starting defender Harrison Delbridge said. “For us, it's the way we like to play and we're excited to get on it, especially when there are actually fans here.”
FC Cincinnati (1-1-0) hopes to bring back a two-game win streak to Nippert Stadium for the home opener.
The club collected its first victory, a 1-0 decision at Pittsburgh on April 1 behind Djiby Fall’s second goal of the season, and looks for another three points at Bethlehem (0-1-0) -- the MLS affiliate of the Philadelphia Union -- on Sunday. Kickoff is 4 p.m.
“It's always a rough start when you have your first three games on the road, but we're doing well with it,” Walker said. “We're not overlooking this game (Sunday), but everyone is looking forward to actually playing a game at home and being able to sleep in our own beds the night before a game. We hear there will be a decent amount of fans, so everyone is excited but we have to take care of this road game first.”