CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati acknowledges all the time that it wouldn't be moving up to Major League Soccer next year without the head-turning crowds that regularly show up on game days.
There is no reason to believe that support won't continue to grow, but fans can't help but wonder what their experience will be like in MLS.
On Saturday, FCC will celebrate "Fan Appreciation Night" at its home finale against Indy XI -- the last regular-season United Soccer League game at Nippert Stadium.
In some regards, it feels like something special is coming to an end. With three games and playoffs remaining, regular-season champion FCC is closing the books on a record-setting stay in USL, and fans are hoping the rise to MLS doesn't change the game-day experience or their ability to attend.
"The thing that keeps bringing people back to games is the atmosphere and fan experience, so I hope they keep that aspect," season-ticket holder Brett Faulkner said. "I know some things will inevitably change with MLS, but they put such an emphasis on families and connectivity, and I don't see them completely going away from that."
The cost associated with attending games is one thing that will inevitably change. Prices have already gone up for 2019 season ticket packages.
In some cases, ticket prices are doubling in cost compared to this year. Four new price levels were added, largely on the lower end of the scale, but the cheapest seats (general admission) jumped from $99 to $199.
Single-game prices haven't been announced, but FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding maintains the club still wants to provide affordable options, which is why the family section received among the lowest percentage increases at 38 percent.
"Since Day 1, one of the attractions was affordability, and FCC did an outstanding job reaching out to the enormous soccer community here," season-ticket holder Michael Kurtz, 47, of Middletown, said in a recent interview. "Season 1, you had basically free seating in the end and you had team after team of little kids, people who had never attended a soccer game of that caliber, and I think all that is going to go away. Affordability is our concern going forward."
Fans also likely will want to invest in new merchandise as inventory shifts to MLS products. FCC is expected to get a new logo for next year, the jersey sponsors and look will change and current memorabilia items are on their way out, so that could add another expense for fans.
As for concessions, it's not yet known how prices will be impacted, if at all. Most fans assume everything will increase, but that is not necessarily the case with food purchases. Atlanta United, which has been successful in drawing record-breaking crowds to fill their 72,000-seat stadium, offers some dollar deals, for example.
Chris White, president of The Pride supporters group, said he expects the game-day atmosphere to remain much the same, although there could be some changes in The Bailey because of MLS limitations on things like deploying smoke and new security requirements.
"It's not going to change too much, I don't think," White said. "People will still have a good time like they always have. … As long as we in supporters groups provide as great an atmosphere as we can to differentiate this from other entertainment opportunities -- and it's up to the club to put a winning team on the field – as long as it's a fun time out people will keep showing up."
Ultimately, the club's success relies on that.
The support of the fans ties directly to player personnel spending, and with the attendance figures now averaging around 25,000 fans a game, that enables the club to go after more expensive players than it would otherwise while building FCC's first MLS roster.
The salary cap for MLS teams this year is $4.035 million, not including costs associated with designated players.
"It goes back to our incredible fan base," FCC technical director Luke Sassano said in an August interview. "When you have 25,000, 30,000 people, we can be pretty picky about what players we want to bring in."
Capacity at Nippert Stadium is 40,000 fans for the University of Cincinnati football games, but FCC's largest all-time crowd was 35,061 tickets sold for an international friendly against Crystal Palace in July 2016 and that was considered the soccer capacity at the time.
A couple thousand seats were removed since then to widen the pitch, further lowering the number of tickets available, and fan comfort weighs into what will be considered the cutoff in the future, according to Berding. The new stadium in the West End, expected to be ready by 2021, likely will be smaller.
FC Cincinnati already has more than 14,000 season tickets sold for next year at Nippert but looks for the 20,000 target mark to anchor home crowd averages closer to 30,000 fans a game.
Saturday's regular-season finale could very well reach record level, as the Orange and Blue also will celebrate their USL regular-season title with a trophy presentation after the match. General admission sold out earlier this week, but several pub partners – listed on FCCincinnati.com -- are expected to host watch parties for those unable to get tickets.
The club seeks to break its USL single-game attendance record one more time. The current record was set when 30,417 fans attended last year's final home game.
"Saturday will be a 100 percent carnival," FCC coach Alan Koch said Wednesday night after his team beat Richmond 4-1 on the road to clinch the USL regular-season title. "I've only been in Cincinnati for a few years, but I've heard the stories of the challenges our different sports teams have all had, and for us to receive a trophy on our own pitch on Saturday night, is going to be a very, very special night.
"I look forward to sharing that night, not only with FCC, but with the entire city of Cincinnati. It's going to be a very, very fun night."