CINCINNATI – Finally! It looks like we're in. The long, nerve-wracking wait is almost over for FC Cincinnati and its fans.
The enormous local excitement that the club has generated in just three seasons, hailed around the soccer world, should go through the roof next week when Major League Soccer is expected to officially invite the Orange and Blue as an expansion team, probably beginning next season.
FC Cincinnati has scheduled a "significant announcement about the future of soccer in Cincinnati" for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Rhinegeist Brewery, and sources tell WCPO that will be followed by a public celebration at Fountain Square. MLS Commissioner Don Garber is scheduled to attend the news conference and will likely make the formal invitation, as he did in Nashville before awarding that city an expansion franchise last December.
Mayor John Cranley, FC Cincinnati majority owner and CEO Carl Lindner III and VP and General Manager Jeff Berding will also attend the news conference, according to the club. The program, which starts at 3:30 p.m., will be streamed on Fountain Square starting at 4:30 p.m., according to 3CDC.
Move over, Reds and Bengals. Nobody is saying so for the record, but it sure looks like the Queen City is about to get its third major league sports franchise.
What a celebration it should be here in “Soccer City USA” – so dubbed by USSoccer.com last year -- with the loud and large FC Cincinnati following busting out their drums and orange and blue smoke pots and breaking out in song and cheers at the news conference and around the city.
Berding had suggested having a Fountain Square celebration with thousands of people filling Downtown, similar to ones that followed the Cincinnati Reds’ World Series championships.
"It’s exciting," FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said last month when asked about the possibility of an expansion bid being awarded to the city. "I came from an MLS club. I came here to this club to be back in MLS. It’s part of why I’m here to lead this club, to ultimately get into MLS, but we don’t control that. We have to continue to focus on where we are now, and if that decision is made, we’ll be ready."
FC Cincinnati plans to rebrand as Fussball Club Cincinnati in MLS as a tribute to the city’s German heritage. They could potentially join the league’s Eastern Division as early as 2019, using its current setup at UC's Nippert Stadium as a temporary home.
The club already widened the pitch to MLS and FIFA standards last year and brought in digital sponsorship boards that are set up on the eastern sideline during games as another way to prepare for MLS play.
"As we’ve grown, there are so many things people see that show the growth, but there are so many things behind the scenes we are working on behind the scenes to build an amazing club," Koch said in April. "Right now, where we are as a USL club, we’re building something very special. If a decision is made, we’re ready because we have all these processes in place to continue to grow and to be ready for the different challenges that present themselves. There is nothing that could blindside us in this process."
ENJOY this memorable moment in FC Cincinnati history against Chicago Fire:
The game winning save by Mitch Hildebrandt! @fccincinnati @mitchhilde @wcpo pic.twitter.com/a8xUIGUWKX
— Philip Lee (@PhilipRLee) June 29, 2017
The same FC Cincinnati fans who have been breaking one attendance record after another and taking the soccer world by storm have been looking forward to this announcement – and holding their breath – since December, when MLS picked Nashville over the Queen City in the first expansion go-round.
A frustrating stadium site search then dragged on for five months until the soccer club finally settled on the West End over Oakley and Newport and negotiated elusive agreements with the Cincinnati school board, Cincinnati City Council and the West End Community Council and ad hoc groups to get to this day.
The only question left is whether FC Cincinnati will join MLS in 2019 or 2020, when it was originally slotted. The league wants one of its three incoming franchises to start play next year, and FC Cincinnati appears better positioned than Nashville or Miami to do that. That would give FC Cincinnati competitive advantages in drafting and signing players over the other two clubs.
Once the formal announcement is made, the focus can turn to building FC Cincinnati’s $250 million soccer stadium project on the present site of Stargel Stadium behind Taft High School, as well as a new $10 million Stargel Stadium, which the soccer club pledged to build first across the street for Taft and other Cincinnati Public Schools to use.
The soccer club says it will pay for the 21,000-seat FC Cincinnati stadium and the $150 million MLS franchise fee. The total cost to FC Cincinnati, after payments in lieu of taxes to Cincinnati Public Schools and promises to West End community programs included in a community benefits agreement, could reach nearly $400 million.
Before the new West End stadium opens, likely in 2021, the soccer team plans to continue to play at Nippert Stadium, where it has thrilled its early fans and made thousands more since its first game in 2016.
Berding has said the new stadium could eventually give birth to a West End renaissance similar to Over-the-Rhine’s with a mix of new affordable housing and condos, plus restaurants and retail, while boosting businesses already there.
“We want to be good neighbors. We think we can be a catalyst for improving the neighborhoods down in the area,” he told WCPO on April 15 – the day before City Council voted to contribute $36 million for stadium infrastructure. “We’ll use our $200-plus million privately funded stadium to have jobs, and economic opportunity for an area that needs it.”
Some residents and community leaders in the West End and on City Council raised strong opposition to a soccer stadium in the low-income, historically black neighborhood, where past development deals have pushed out residents.
Opponents turned out in large numbers to condemn the stadium plan during a series of public meetings starting in January, when FC Cincinnati turned its attention to a West End site. Council members who voted against the April 16 deal questioned if residents really want the stadium, the need for public money, and if the team will follow through on promises to better the neighborhood.
Following the council vote, the “Coalition Against an FC Cincinnati Stadium in West End” vowed “to use every method available both legally and socially to stop this stadium.”
In mid-May, though, the soccer club and an ad-hoc group of West End residents negotiated a community benefits agreement and City Council unanimously approved the deal. Under the amended agreement, FC Cincinnati will pay up to $100,000 for a housing study for the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority; pay up to $50,000 for a "communications consultant" for the Port, Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses and West End Community Council; and "support" the Port's efforts to invest in equitable housing development in the West End. The team will also help raise funds for housing support in the neighborhood and pay at least $100,000 annually for the West End Youth Soccer Program.
The stadium will be owned by the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority, according to Laura Brunner, the group's president.
West End residents will get some input on the stadium's design via a Community Design Committee. FC Cincinnati agreed to meet with the nine-resident committee "as soon as possible" and hold at least two public meetings.
City Council agreed to contribute $36 million to help build roads, construct utility lines and add parking for the West End site. Hamilton County Commissioners have also pledged $15 million to build a parking garage. State officials agreed to kick in $4 million for infrastructure.
Before it could get City Council approval, FC Cincinnati went through several weeks of contentious negotiations with the school board to get the OK to build on its Stargel Stadium site. The school board stuck to its demands that FC Cincinnati pay the same tax rate -- 25 percent -- as other new developments in the city, and the soccer club eventually agreed to pay roughly $25 million into the city’s school system over 30 years, starting with a $10 million upfront payment in 2019.
FC Cincinnati has already begun building a better team to compete at a higher level in America’s top division. FC Cincinnati is off to its best start - 8-2-2 overall, 6-2-2 in league play, and 2-0 in the U.S. Open Cup. In the meantime, the Orange and Blue will continue to play in the second-tier United Soccer League at least through 2018 and, no doubt, continue to draw huge crowds.
If MLS would have made its expansion decision based just on soccer attendance, popularity and enthusiasm, FC Cincinnati would have been a shoo-in first choice. The club has led its league in attendance and surpassed most MLS clubs since its first season in 2016.
FC Cincinnati is averaging a league-leading 23,897 for four home games at Nippert Stadum this year - more than all but five MLS clubs and almost double the second-best USL mark of Nashville SC (12,340). The April 7 home opener, played on a near-freezing night, drew 25,667 and was the second-largest crowd of any game in North America that weekend.
Last year, FC Cincinnati drew a league-high average of 21,199. That figure would have ranked eighth among the 23 MLS clubs and was nearly twice as many as Sacramento, which was No. 2 in the USL.
What brought worldwide attention were the huge crowds and overwhelming enthusiasm for U.S. Open Cup matches against MLS clubs Columbus, Chicago and New York. Each game drew more than 31,000 fans with the semifinal against New York setting a non-final Open Cup record (33,250).
Twelve cities entered the MLS expansion derby in January 2017 seeking one of two spots. Even though MLS also named Sacramento and Detroit as finalists last December, the league appeared to favor the Queen City all along and gave FC Cincinnati the extra time it needed to close a deal in the West End. The club had proposed an Oakley stadium when owners made their formal presentation to MLS in New York on Dec. 6, but national media reports said MLS preferred a site in the urban core.
“Although we haven’t finalized any deals and all of the finalist markets remain under consideration, we’ve made the most progress in Cincinnati,” MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott told SI.com on Feb 23.
Nevertheless, even fans grew weary as the delay went on.
The league had originally said it would award two franchises in December, but it stopped with Nashville. Garber then promised to announce the second by the start of the 2018 season on March 3, but that deadline came and went.
It might have been easier to come to a deal in the West End if FC Cincinnati had shown interest there earlier. It announced last June that Oakley, Newport and the West End were the finalists for its stadium, but it wasn’t until January that the soccer club revealed plans for a West End stadium, and it raised fears from residents after it bought options on 66 vacant lots.
Berding promised to build housing on those lots and swore that no one would lose their homes because of FC Cincinnati’s move there. He also promised to ditch the West End plan if a majority of the community didn’t want the stadium. But he met strong resistance from distrustful residents and activists.
Opponents expressed fears that residents would be priced out of their homes and that the neighborhood, torn in half when Interstate 75 was built and victim of broken promises of public improvements and affordable housing through the years, would become gentrified.
The club started to gain support in the West End after it hired former Mayor Mark Mallory, who grew up there, to do engagement. The Mallorys have been the first family of the West End from the time that William Mallory Sr. raised his family there and rose to become a long-time leader in the Ohio House and a highly respected Cincinnati statesman.
It’s been a long journey since Dec. 20, when the hearts of FC Cincinnati fans sank in disappointment upon hearing that MLS picked Nashville over Cincinnati. But Garber gave Queen City fans reasons for optimism that the next team would be theirs.
Garber told WCPO's Jake Ryle that FC Cincinnati had "an unbelievable pitch. They did a wonderful job. I’m confident they’re in a good spot.”
Garber wouldn’t be specific as to the holdup, but Cincinnati was weeks behind Nashville in winning promises of public money and light years behind in finalizing its stadium plan. Nashville was ready to go with its stadium plan and financing on Oct. 2, though it had to overcome a court challenge from opponents.
Since then, Sacramento’s bid lost its biggest backer and most of its momentum when billionaire Meg Whitman pulled out of the ownership group. And Detroit dropped plans for a downtown soccer stadium and based its bid on playing at Ford Field, the domed stadium of the NFL Detroit Lions, despite MLS’s public insistence that expansion franchises own soccer-specific stadiums.