CINCINNATI – Major League Soccer could be months, weeks or days away from naming another expansion franchise, but FC Cincinnati is still the favorite, according to a league official.
There's just that little matter of picking a stadium site that is getting in the way. The club has spent weeks focusing its efforts in the West End, so is it turning back to Oakley again?
Club President Jeff Berding has finally agreed to have a community meeting with Oakley next Monday, WCPO.com's Amanda Seitz reports. FC Cincinnati will share preliminary findings of the Oakley traffic study and answer residents' questions.
FC Cincinnati's Jeff Berding is expected to present an update on stadium plans to the Oakley Community Council March 5. This will be the first time Berding has appeared at an Oakley meeting since November. @WCPO
— Amanda Seitz (@AmandaSeitz1) February 26, 2018
This will be the first time Berding and team have addressed the community since getting the Oakley Community Council's vote of support on Nov. 7. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Oakley Community Center.
Berding will present preliminary findings of a neighborhood traffic study to the group, and take questions from Oakley residents, a team spokeswoman confirmed to WCPO Monday.
Is it posturing? Is Berding playing Oakley against the West End, trying to put pressure on the West End to dismiss the neighborhood critics?
Or is Berding living up to what he's been saying all along - that all three sites are still in play - even Newport, despite no public efforts by the club to engage with officials or residents there?
If FC Cincinnati fans are confused, a high MLS official says Cincinnati is still leading the competition with Sacramento and Detroit for the league's next expansion slot, presumably to be awarded before the year runs out.
“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 Friday.
Abbott also said the March 3 deadline set by Commissioner Don Garber isn’t binding and the league will take as much time as necessary.
“We don’t have, and don’t need to have, a fixed deadline, and we will wait until all of the necessary elements are in place before selecting the next club,” Abbott said. “Whether the announcement is in a few weeks or a couple months is dependent on finalizing the details, but I don’t anticipate that it will be an extended period of time.”
Garber set this week’s deadline in December after the league chose Nashville to fill one of its two expansion slots for 2019 or 2020. At the time, Garber said he expected to name the other city by the time MLS opens its 2018 season. That’s Saturday.
Garber has not identified the holdup except to say there are I’s to dot and T’s to cross with each bid. But SI.com said the issue with FC Cincinnati is the uncertainty over the stadium site.
While the soccer club submitted Oakley as part of its bid to MLS last December, it turned its attention in the last two months to the West End, where it has met resistance from some residents and community activists.
SI.com suggests that MLS might be pulling FC Cincinnati's strings.
MLS typically prefers to be close to downtown, and the league would rather see FC Cincinnati play in the West End or Newport than in Oakley, according to SI.com.
Berding has repeatedly said he won’t build in a community that doesn’t want the club’s $200 million stadium, and so far he has had a hard time selling the idea at public meetings of the Cincinnati school board and West End Community Council. He has even made door-to-door forays into the neighborhood with former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who used to live there.
Part of the problem is this: FC Cincinnati waited a year after announcing it would seek an MLS franchise to reveal plans for a West End stadium on the current site of Cincinnati Public Schools’ Willard R. Stargel Stadium, next to Taft High School, earlier this month. And it bought options on 66 vacant lots nearby where it says it plans to build housing.
That made residents nervous.
Berding has made a handful of guarantees – building a new $10 million high school stadium across the street, affordable housing, and free residential parking, for example – to win over residents and push the stadium plan forward. But Berding has to fight fears that some residents will be priced out of their homes and that the neighborhood, victim of broken promises of affordable housing through the years, will become gentrified.
As long as MLS waits to award a franchise to FC Cincinnati, it makes Berding’s selling job even harder. Abbott told Si.com there’s no handshake deal with FC Cincinnati that might allow the club to lobby for the West End site with maximum leverage.
But Cincinnati is still the front-runner, according to SI.com, as long Sacramento lacks a billionaire owner and Detroit lacks a commitment to build a new stadium.
If FC Cincinnati gets a franchise, it’s likely to kick off in 2019 - a year earlier than originally expected, according to SI.com. That’s because Nashville and Miami, which had been slotted to enter the league in 2019, won’t be ready with suitable teams or stadiums. They’re expected to wait until 2020.
FC Cincinnati, on the other hand, has been building an MLS-ready team in preparation for its third season in the United Soccer League in 2018. And it has a more than suitable home at UC’s Nippert Stadium, where it had broken one league attendance record after another and has set a goal of selling 20,000 season tickets this year.
MLS will need to add a team for 2019 to balance the league after a second Los Angeles team joins this year. That will give MLS 23 teams.