CINCINNATI -- When the whistle blew to end FC Cincinnati’s friendly against Sacramento, it signaled the official close to the United Soccer League preseason for both clubs and the transition to a new season.
The game Saturday was a brief reminder of the looming decision over who the next Major League Soccer expansion will be -- a competition seemingly down to Cincinnati and Sacramento. But the return of soccer to Nippert Stadium was at the forefront as a welcome distraction from weeks of wonder.
Unfortunately for anxious FC Cincinnati fans, the home side fell in a discouraging effort, 2-1, in front of an estimated crowd of 5,000 at Nippert Stadium. It was the club’s lone loss of the preseason, which featured four wins and two draws.
“We’re very disappointed in the performance today,” FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch said after the game. “That wasn't even close to being where we need to be at this stage of our preseason … just having spoken to our guys in the changing room, you can see they've been humbled today and brought back down to earth, so I think it's a major positive that we actually lost a game in preseason. Unfortunately, it happened today. It wasn't a game we wanted to lose by any means.”
The enthusiasm of the year’s first supporters’ march into Nippert didn’t translate to the pitch, but the most disappointing part was that Saturday’s friendly was the one that most resembled what a USL game will look like -- both in opponent and atmosphere – as the season gets underway next weekend.
It had nothing to do with Cincinnati vs. Sacramento, Koch said.
Yet, the competition between the two clubs will carry on in the background until an MLS announcement is made.
As Cincinnati’s third United Soccer League season kicks off March 17 in Charleston, club ownership will continue to work, publicly and behind the scenes, to clinch the MLS bid. But at least now the wait will be less tormenting for fans, who can get their local soccer fix as opposed to what they endured during the offseason lull.
MLS named Cincinnati, Sacramento, Nashville and Detroit the four finalists for this round of expansion back in November, met with representatives of all four markets in early December and planned to announce two new clubs before the end of 2017. Fans’ hopes rose to an all-time high.
Nashville’s bid officially was accepted Dec. 20 but the New Year came with no second announcement and tension mounted.
A decision would be made before the start of the MLS season March 3, league commissioner Don Garber said, later amending that to say “hopefully” that would be the case. One week after MLS kicked off its season, the clubs shifted the focus back to the field with outsiders joking that Saturday’s winner would take the bid.
Luckily for FCC, the results on the field didn’t matter.
“We know we didn't play good enough,” defender Dekel Keinan said. “It's no secret. We're experienced and professional enough to know that wasn't good enough. But like the coach said, that happened now and not next week. That's a good wake-up call for us.”
FCC left a lot to be desired as Sacramento took a 1-0 lead in the 33rd minute on Cameron Iwasa’s rebound. The Republic then doubled their cushion in the 71st minute on Villyan Bijev’s shot from a narrow angle before Keinan headed in a corner kick to put FCC on the board in the 86th minute to close the scoring.
Although not a memorable performance for former Sacramento goalkeeper Evan Newton, his presence in the FCC goal was a subtle reflection of the directions the clubs headed over the past year.
A 2011 first-round draft pick out, Newton joined Sacramento in 2015 as a way to get playing time for a club on the rise. He had been on the bench of two MLS clubs prior to his first USL season in 2014 and had opportunities this offseason to return to the top division.
Instead, Newton chose Cincinnati.
“I enjoyed my time in Sacramento,” Newton told WCPO.com in February. “I loved it there. My heart will always be there. I know with the club and myself there were plans for long-term, but based on everything going on -- there's a lot of ins and outs to it -- I needed to make a choice based on what's best for me … I'm just focused on right now. Right now, it's having a good year and playing well and helping this team win a championship.”
Two years ago, Sacramento represented, to a large extent, what FC Cincinnati wanted as it began its inaugural season. The Republic then held all the USL attendance records, and Garber was courting the club with comments about its MLS future being a matter of “not if, but when.”
It took two games for FCC to break Sacramento’s single-game attendance record, set in its first season in 2014 at 20,231, and after blowing the Republic’s season attendance record (158,516) out of the water at 259,437 fans that first year, it became apparent Cincinnati could be a real player in the expansion picture.
That made the hype around last year’s preseason matchup between the two clubs in Sacramento huge. Cincinnati fans flocked to local bars to watch the live-streamed match, and a crowd of 8,906 filled seats at the Republic’s Bonney Field.
Both clubs – and their supporters – had something to prove.
A year later, Cincinnati is viewed as the frontrunner for expansion, as ownership diligently works to lock down a stadium plan among three viable options. Sacramento, after four years waiting on MLS, has lost some of its luster and still seeks the billionaire investor needed for a bid.
“It's always been talked about, for years, with Sacramento,” Newton said back in February. “They were in decent position, and still are -- who knows what is going to happen? But I wanted to keep playing and at a club that has a lot of exposure.
“I didn't want to go sit on the bench in MLS. I did that for years and it didn't do much for me, so I went there and I'm glad I did. I loved it and grew a lot as a person and player, but now it's time for another chapter, and I'm excited to be here.”
The club’s performance Saturday took some of the excitement out for fans expecting better, but the start of the USL season brings hope for a brighter future.