CINCINNATI – Jeff Berding has this message for FC Cincinnati fans:
“We're going to fight for you. We are going to fight for the city. We are going to represent,” the team's president and general manager told WCPO Wednesday.
With only three days before its Major League Soccer debut, excitement over the Orange and Blue hasn't been this fever-pitched since Commissioner Don Garber awarded a franchise to FCC last May at a raucous, fan-filled party that started at Rhinegeist Brewery, spread to Fountain Square and lasted well into the night.
Berding repeated Wednesday that the FC Cincinnati's large and rabid fan base was the key factor in getting an MLS franchise in just the team's fourth season. After shattering USL attendance records, FC Cincinnati fans helped the club reach another milestone by selling 20,000 season tickets for its first MLS season at Nippert Stadium.
Only two other teams, Seattle and Atlanta United FC, achieved that feat and they remain the top two teams in the league for attendance.
As evidence of local fans' enthusiasm, there will be watch parties galore Saturday night when FC Cincinnati opens across the country against the Seattle Sounders, and Berding expects "many hundreds" of FC Cincinnati fans to be in attendance at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL Seahawks.
And that's when reality will set in for FCC fans and their team. You're not in the United Soccer League anymore.
Those hundreds of FC Cincinnati fans will be vastly outnumbered by an expected 48,000 Sounder fans, whose team finished second in their conference last year and won the MLS Cup in 2016.
Not only that, Berding acknowledged that his team has a tough task ahead as its transitions from a three-year run of success in the USL to what could be a rocky first season in MLS.
FCC has the toughest early schedule in the league, playing defending champion Atlanta United FC in front of a possible 70,000 fans in the second match, followed by the Portland Timbers, MLS Cup runner-up last year and 2015 champion, in the home opener at Nippert Stadium on March 17.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if FC Cincinnati loses its first three games, but you won’t hear Berding say that.
“Listen, we tell our players, ‘Every single game you step on the pitch, whether it be for practice or for a game, we have to prepare to win, you have to compete to win, and have to sacrifice to win,’ “ Berding said. “You don't get to win them all in sports. That's not the way life is. We certainly expect that mindset and we're going to give it all we can against a great team."
Berding said his goal for the first season is reaching the playoffs. The odds are against it, but Berding is counting on the team getting better as it goes along - with lots of encouragement from its fans.
“It's going to be a process. We will be better a month from now than today. We will be better in the summer than we are today. We will be better by the end of the year," Berding said. "We're a brand new team with brand new players who have never played together, against teams that are obviously very experienced with one another, but we are going to go out there and fight every single day.”
Even if they start 0-3, you can be sure the fiercely loyal FC Cincinnati fans won’t jump off the bandwagon like Bengals and Reds fans will if those teams lose their first three games this year.
Berding says the fans got the team in MLS to begin with.
“When Carl (Lindner III) and I launched the franchise, we had every expectation of being in Major League Soccer in our fourth year,” Berding said. “We knew we had the audition in the USL, the lower league, but we know this is a great sports town and we believe the community would embrace us to the point where we'd get into Major League Soccer at this point."
And the community really has embraced it.
“It’s the fans that caught Major League Soccer's attention, really caught the attention of the world," Berding said. "For a lower division team to be playing in front of 25,000, 30,000 people on a regular basis is just unheard of, anywhere in the world! So to be here in the United States and in the heartland, where people really wouldn't expect soccer to draw that much attention, has been spectacular. And we give all the tribute to the fans and this community's embrace."
Berding said he would give a speech to the team before Saturday night's game and he'll remind the players of what it means to play for FC Cincinnati.
"It really is just about, as I said, competing and sacrificing to win - not just for each other and the club but for the city. I fully expect that it's like war and you'll put your life on the line for this city.
"Ultimately, if you have that mindset, you'll win the war. You'll lose some battles, but you'll win the war."
Follow O'Rourke and Helmer in Seattle for FC Cincinnati's first MLS game and all the pre-game festivities. Make sure to watch our newscasts for live reports from the Pacific Northwest starting Thursday.