FC Cincinnati leaders make their case to Major League Soccer expansion committee

'We are a proven market. We are not a projection.'

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati soccer fans aren't holding their breath yet, but you can tell the anticipation is building as Major League Soccer gets close to selecting two cities for expansion franchises in 2020.

FC Cincinnati officials joined three other finalists - Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento - in New York Wednesday to make their case before Major League Soccer's expansion committee. At the end of the day, FC Cincinnati Vice President and General Manager Jeff Berding said he was optimistic about the Orange and Blue's chances.

Berding said FC Cincinnati based its pitch on the club's remarkable attendance in its first two years, its plan to build and fund a soccer stadium in Oakley, and its strong ownership group.

"We have said for some time we are a proven market. We are not a projection. That is certainly a strength of ours," Berding said.

"We are confident that we showed that we absolutely have a commitment and an ability to build that stadium."

Berding added he wasn't interested in spending energy on agonizing about the competition -- instead, he said, he was focusing on the FC Cincinnati story and leaving the rest in the hands of league leadership.

"We are very humble about the process," he said. "This is a tremendous league. People have been building this league over 20 years to turn it into something that all these cities want to be a part of."

READ the club's official statement.

All the key FC Cincinnati players, including billionaire owners Carl Lindner III and Cintas CEO Scott Farmer, went to the Big Apple to make their two-hour pitch. Mayor John Cranley went, too.

They presented their plan to build and pay for a $200-million, 21,000-seat soccer stadium. Just last week, the club got city council to commit $37 million for infrastructure and additional funding from Hamilton County for a 1,000-space parking garage.

They drove home the point that U.S. Soccer, ESPN and other national soccer media raved about the enthusiastic 30,000-plus crowds for the U.S. Open Cup games last summer, as well as its long string of record crowds in the United Soccer League,

"We are very proud of Cincinnati. It's a major league sports town. It's been dubbed by some of the U.S. Soccer Federation 'the soccer capital of the United States,'" Berding said. 

He pointed to FC Cincinnati's new Cincinnati Development Academy for girls and the abundance of kids playing soccer in the Tri-State.

"We have more soccer players per capita in Cincinnati than any other city in the United States," he said. "We are very proud about building our sport. We look forward to a very exciting future."

The MLS expansion committee of six team owners will make its recommendation to all of the league owners for a vote on Dec. 14. Then everybody involved will be holding their breath for the announcement expected a few days later.

Pros and Cons

A week ago, Sports Illustrated predicted that Cincinnati would miss out on winning a bid  "by a hair" to Nashville and Sacramento. SI cited uncertainty in FC Cincinnati's stadium plan, but that was before it got commitments from the city and county. However, FC Cincinnati is still $21 million short of raising what they say they need, and that could be a stumbling point.

If MLS were choosing based on which city generates the most excitement for soccer locally and across the nation and draws the most fans, FC Cincinnati would be a shoo-in.

None of the other three cities can match FC CIncinnati for its soccer enthusiasm or attendance (nearly 21,199 per home game in the United Soccer League - more than 15 MLS franchises). And FC Cincinnati says it has already sold 13,000 season tickets for 2018.

Sacramento, in the same league, averaged just more than half of many fans (11,569) playing in a smaller stadium. And Nashville and Detroit do not even have professional soccer teams, which Berding alluded to.

Sacramento's bid got a big boost Wednesday when billionaire Meg Whitman and husband Grant Marsh officially joined the investor group. Whitman had publicly withdrew her financial support last month after announcing her impending retirement as Hewlett-Packard CEO.

Sacramento also has a solid plan for a 19,621-seat stadium in place. Pre-construction work started last summer.

In Nashville, the Metro Council approved $225 million in bonds for a new 27,500-seat stadium at The Fairgrounds,  but that plan is facing a legal challenge from local groups that claim it would kill the State Fair and interfere with other Fairgrounds events and uses.

The stadium deal calls for Nashville billionaire John Ingram and his investors - including the Wilf family, which owns the Minnesota Vikings - to put $25 million down and pay off the debt over 30 years. Metro would own the stadium.

Nashville will have a team in the United Soccer League next year.

Detroit's bid has the most celebrity muscle behind it, led by two billionaire NBA owners - Dan Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Tom Gores of the Detroit Pistons - and supported by the Ford family. But it's also a longshot because the ownership group wants to play in Ford Field - a closed NFL stadium and current home of the Detroit Lions.

MLS has made it clear to FC Cincinnati other bidders that they want each expansion team to own a soccer-specific stadium. Would MLS change the rules for those heavy hitters? Maybe.

The two cities that don't win bids this time can try again. MLS plans to expand to two more cities, tentatively in 2024.

EXAMINE how the cities' bids compare

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