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'This city is ready to explode': An oral history of FC Cincinnati’s first year

Inside the many highs and few lows of the expansion club
Posted at 7:40 PM, May 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 08:59:51-04

It only took a year for FC Cincinnati to show it belonged to its hometown and knew how to follow Cincinnati sports traditions.

FCC entered the playoffs as a 3-seed in the USL hosting the Charleston Battery, the 6-seed, in the first round at Nippert Stadium. Sean Okoli, the eventual most valuable player and Golden Boot winner (top goal scorer), gave the Orange and Blue a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute.

Charleston didn’t fear the favored club, however. The Battery beat FCC in the season opener and tied in their second meeting. Charleston tied the game just before the half and took the lead on a Zachary Prince goal in the 65th minute.

Thirty minutes later, the magical run was over. FCC’s first season ended much like many Bengals and the Reds campaigns had — with an upset in the postseason.

Not all fairy tales have a happy ending. This is the story of the first year of FC Cincinnati from five men who lived it.

The club had major league intentions from the start. Bringing in living legend John Harkes as head coach signified FCC’s big plans.

He wanted to field a team that played an attractive style to fans. One stated goal for his first team: A home goal scored in every game.

AUSTIN BERRY, FC CINCINNATI DEFENDER: He was a perfect guy to do that job, especially in year one. Once they announced “Harkesy,” that was big news. Wasn’t just a soccer club in Cincinnati. It was legit.

DAN MCNALLY, DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS: I’ll always feel he was the right man at the right time. (Harkes) played in the World Cup, played in England in the Premier League. Gave us instant credibility. Had connections with a lot of players. John was essential in those early weeks to get everything up and running.

Berry, the homegrown product of Summit Country Day, was the first signing. He had MLS experience in Chicago and Philadelphia. Although several players on the first roster played in the country’s top division, a lot of that experience was either on the bench or in limited spurts of playing time.

BERRY: It was a group of guys that just wanted to enjoy the game again. We were all at different points, from different places, coming from different teams.

JIMMY MCLAUGHLIN, FC CINCINNATI MIDFIELDER: I was kind of fed up with soccer. It was kind of my last chance. Give it one more try. See what happens.

OMAR CUMMINGS, FC CINCINNATI FORWARD: I was very lucky to go to Colorado when I was drafted. There weren’t any big money players. If you get drafted in LA like Kenney (Walker) was, have guys like David Beckham in the middle and Landon Donovan and all those guys in the middle, you’re not going to play.

Before TQL Stadium and the facility in Milford, before Nippert Stadium, FC Cincinnati’s first home was at Wall2Wall, an indoor soccer facility in Mason.

JOHN HARKES, HEAD COACH: A lot of humbling situations. We were still building and growing and make things work. Where are we practicing today? Indoor or outdoor?

MCLAUGHLIN: It was freezing. We were changing in the lobby. No locker rooms or anything.

CUMMINGS: I’ll take Wall2Wall any day of the week than going outside and playing in the winter. We’re driving to practice, sleet and snow and everything. Wall2Wall was great. (laughter)

BERRY: I had to call up my old high school and ask if we could use their field for a day because we needed a bigger field for open tryouts.

FCC were champions before they officially began their season. The club won the title at the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic in Bradenton, Florida, including a win over MLS side NYCFC.

HARKES: I could see early on they were a special group. Second week of preseason training. I could tell that early. The positivity from the group. They were great guys. They pushed each other.

CUMMINGS: The players met each other three weeks ago and you wind up winning a mini-competition.

MCNALLY: We really brought in a great roster. They were excellent professionals. Outstanding players at the USL level. The soccer side was the least of my concerns. It was almost set up the soccer and stadium side of the operation so we could really function well as a club.

McNally had one sticking point when the club moved to Nippert Stadium: The team would never play a game with American football lines or an endzone on the field.

There were plenty of little bumps in the road getting the first-year club up and running.

MCNALLY: I think I almost got arrested that first trip because we spent so long getting the equipment off the team van (at CVG Airport). The police were giving me a hard time. I didn't get arrested, to be fair.

HARKES: Somehow, we fell short in uniforms or training kits. We were like, "We forgot the other bag. What are we doing here?"

BERRY: We went to Bethlehem, and it was freezing. We didn't have any underclothes. We just have the jerseys and shorts. Drove up to the closest Dick's (Sporting Goods) and bought like 18 blue Nike undersleeve things.

It wasn't much warmer for the home opener six days later — 39 degrees Fahrenheit at Nippert Stadium. That didn't keep the crowds away.

BERRY: We kept pestering Dan. "How many, how many are coming?" At Nippert, you never know. We were expecting for 4-5 thousand, trying to be on par with some of the better USL clubs.

CUMMINGS: First-time team, didn’t know what to expect. Couple teams here before hadn’t done so well. We were hoping to get the 7,000 mark in a few seasons.

BERRY: When I came out for the national anthem, it was like, “Holy crap.”

MCLAUGHLIN: I remember hearing them the Bailey march for the first time. None of us were expecting that. Walk out and it’s butterflies. Same level as an MLS crowd that I saw playing in Philly. Everything fell into place. That game was an opportunity for FCC to take over in the city and become a big player.

HARKES: I was looking around and I looked at my staff and I said, "Where are we?" (laughs) I think they thought, "The old man has lost his mind. You don't know where we are, coach?" "No, I'm asking because look at the crowd here, it's fantastic."

Nearly 15,000 were in attendance for the home opener against the Charlotte Independence. One of Harkes's goals — scoring in every home game — was fulfilled in the fifth minute when Sean Okoli netted a scissor kick.

CUMMINGS: I actually missed it. I didn’t see it. Kids had to go to the bathroom or something. I was about five steps from seeing the field …The roar that came out of the stadium was so unique. I got chills. The sound of it. That first one will always live with me.

HARKES: Sent reverberations through my body and mind. It was incredible. Whether at Wembley or the Rose bowl, all those emotional reactions, they lift you up. Doesn’t matter if 12 or 15 or 80,000. Such a great surprise.

The USL attendance numbers made FCC a domestic anomaly, and the Crystal Palace game put the team on the map internationally. Over 35,000 people watched the friendly — the most ever to watch a soccer game in Ohio.

HARKES: Talking to the club itself was just like, "Are we ready for this at this time?" And I'm like, "This city is ready to explode. We need to do this."

BERRY: People are always asking, "Did you play in the Crystal Palace game?" or "I was at that Crystal Palace game." It's always the Crystal Palace game.

MCNALLY: (Crystal Palace) had a great time. I was down at the hotel down with the Crystal Palace people. They partied pretty well to be fair. I've got some good stories about Crystal Palace down at OTR that weekend.

The party ended for FCC in the playoff opener, a 2-1 loss at Nippert.

MCNALLY: I think by the end of the season, and this is just my perception of it, we were just tired. It had been an unbelievable ride that year. And maybe the playoff was a game too many for us.

CUMMINGS: I think we should have done way better, honestly. It was almost like we didn't know it was going to be over.

Five years since their last game, the team lives on.

HARKES: We were just real. Had no egos at the time. Like we have all the answers. We were all in it together. Like, "Let’s go!"Oral history of the FC Cincinnati’s first year

MCLAUGHLIN: Crazy how close that group was and how often everyone still talks, and the lifelong relationships built from that.

BERRY: That first-year crew, they get a lot of credit for where this club is at now.