MLS press conference leaves FC Cincinnati fans in suspense

Posted at 6:22 PM, Dec 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-09 18:22:18-05

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati fans who were hoping for a little more insight into where their club stands in the Major League Soccer expansion process will have to wait at least a little while longer.

MLS sent out a press release Thursday stating commissioner Don Garber would be addressing the expansion process during his state of the league press conference Friday afternoon, leading into the MLS Cup final in Toronto.

However, early in the press conference, which was streamed live on the league website, Garber made it clear he would not be revealing any more details to that process. He did confirm what has been reporting for the last few weeks: That the expansion guidelines are expected to be voted on by the MLS Board of Directors at their meeting Dec. 15 in New York.

"As you probably know, it is strategic expansion," Garber said. "Following our board meeting on Thursday in New York, we will announce a process and a timeline for our next round of expansion, which will add clubs 25, 26, 27 and 28 to Major League Soccer. In contrary to what’s been reported -- we saw a number of reports -- today we are not announcing our expansion process. It is one of the key topics for our board meeting next Thursday, and we do plan to announce the full details of our process, our timeline, pricing and everything else related to expansion as early as the 15th, hopefully by 5 o’clock in the afternoon."

FC Cincinnati is hoping to earn a bid as MLS plans to expand from its current 20-team setup to fielding 28 teams, likely by the mid- to late-'20s.

MLS already has four of eight planned expansion markets in the works, including the addition of Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC in 2017, Los Angeles FC in 2018 and Miami expected to follow, pending a finalized stadium plan.

FC Cincinnati worked its way into the conversation with its multiple USL attendance records and on-field success, which included a playoff appearance as the Eastern Conference's third-place team. Its average attendance of roughly 17,296 fans was better than five MLS franchises and ranked 16th among all levels in the U.S. and Canada -- and that doesn’t even include the 30,187 fans that attended the club’s first-round playoff game or the crowd of 35,061 that attended a friendly against English Premier League side Crystal Palace.

Garber visited Cincinnati on Nov. 29 to tour the city, check out FC Cincinnati’s arrangements at the University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium -- which had just begun a $2 million renovation to widen the pitch to MLS standards -- and meet with club executives, local government and business leaders and fans.

During a town hall meeting with the general public, Garber expressed how impressed he was of his tour and complimented the partnership with UC but said FC Cincinnati needs to figure out if Nippert Stadium is its long-term solution.

RELATED: How vital is a soccer-only stadium for MLS team?

The topic of soccer-specific stadiums came up in his press conference Friday but in general terms about how far the league has come.

"Building soccer stadiums like the one we are going to play in Saturday was not part of the original plan," Garber said. "Folks sat around and talked about what they needed to do to build a Division I soccer league and didn’t think they needed to build soccer stadiums. In just a few years, we will have 20 soccer-specific stadiums built specifically for our league and for our sport and then several others that we’ll build with soccer in mind.”

He went on to say that even Atlanta's multi-purpose stadium that will open sometime in 2017 was "built with soccer in mind," perhaps insinuating that soccer-specific stadiums won’t be required.

However, when asked specifically about the pros and cons of FC Cincinnati's bid for expansion, Garber shied away from a direct response.

"Rather than comment on Cincinnati specifically, since I've talked a lot about that, what I am thinking about quite a bit is it seems there is almost no city in America where you can't have a viable professional soccer team," Garber said. "The question is at what level, what are the facilities, how does that provide value geographically to the respective leagues, what's the long-term vision of the teams? It's very easy to get intoxicated by immediate success, but you've got to think, 'What's it going to look like 20 years from now?' because this league will still be here in 20 years, and we have to be mindful of that, and we want stability and not move teams around. The takeaway from me in the last two or three years is the shock, frankly, of the energy in almost every major city in wanting to support a professional team."

The only other real mention of expansion Friday came when a reporter asked about Miami's situation and whether there is a timetable for that deal, since David Beckham’s ownership group continues to struggle to finalize stadium plans. Land has been secured, but zoning issues are among the latest struggles.

This could be of interest to Cincinnati because, as Garber said at the town hall meeting Nov. 29, MLS does not want an odd number of teams. Miami was expected to join along with Los Angeles FC in 2018 but now is saying 2019 is the earliest it would be ready.

If the league is looking for an MLS-ready club to step in, FC Cincinnati could be an option -- depending on what MLS releases as its expansion guidelines.

"There is a timetable, and we continue to work with the ownership group because we want a team in Miami," Garber said. "As you see how teams evolve in certain markets and the challenges of getting stadiums built, we try to do everything we can to make sure we have the right recipe for success as we’re building clubs we would like to be there the rest of time. There is a deadline on the Miami deadline but I’m not going to share that. … We need to resolve the Miami situation so we can go forward with our expansion plans with team No. 25-28 because they are team No. 24 and if they are not going to be team No. 24, there are a lot of things that we will need to move around, and that’s something we will discuss at our board meeting. We may or may not come out of that meeting with anything definitively that well announce publicly as it relates to Miami."

Nippert is "a great solution for now," as Garber said during his visit, so Cincinnati might be considered MLS ready by 2018 given the upgrades to the pitch, as well as the club’s attendance, TV deals (with possibly more coming for away games), strong ownership group and plans to build up a youth academy -- all things Garber has said are factors.

FC Cincinnati general manager and president Jeff Berding said last week the club would be open to further exploring a soccer-specific stadium if that was determined necessary to be included in expansion. However, the club still hopes Nippert will satisfy MLS.

Berding expects to have a better idea by Dec. 15, and it seems fans should too.