By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 14, 2017) US Soccer Players - The life of a second division soccer team in the United States is mostly about pushing limits. It's working out what it means to be a second division soccer club in the United States. While it would be easy to make the argument that striving to break through limits in the lower divisions here is a function of the lack of promotion and relegation, it’s unlikely you’ll hear too many of the clubs themselves moaning about that missing opportunity.
Instead, there’s just a recognition that this is what soccer in the United States is. While winning the league and moving up isn’t possible, there are other avenues for growth. That includes a path towards joining the top division.
FC Cincinnati has lived the limbo life for a season and a half as member of the USL. In that short time, the club is known for two things. Massive crowds and outsized ambition. Propped up by wealthy local ownership and leadership with a history working in Cincinnati sports, FC Cincinnati looked like a team who would never be satisfied being second tier. They turned a friendly against Premier League club Crystal Palace into an event last summer. It was as much a statement of purpose as anything else, showing what they could do in their market. An announced attendance of 35,061 and a claim that it was the biggest crowd ever to watch a soccer game in the state of Ohio.
When MLS announced its intention to add four more expansion teams (plus Miami) over the next few years and put in place a committee and schedule for determining which cities would get in, FC Cincinnati leaped into action. Armed with their impressive attendance numbers, the club whose age is best measured in months threw in their lot with eleven other cities. Thanks to the size of their market and the uncertainty over a stadium plan, FC Cincinnati looked like a long shot for MLS expansion.
This week is proving pivotal in Cincinnati’s candidacy. First on Monday night, the club unveiled a set of stadium renderings showing what they plan to build as a permanent soccer-specific home when they move into MLS. Months of quiet on the stadium front looked like an ominous sign, especially as cities like St Louis and San Diego were making news and places like Sacramento and San Antonio, didn’t need to do a thing more to get their stadium solutions presentable to the league. It was thought that Cincinnati might stand pat with a college football venue as their planned MLS home, something that might not excite decision-makers at MLS.
The Cincinnati plans are audacious. The canopy and sides for the 25,000-seat venue (expandable up to 30,000) involve a translucent material lit using LED lights in any color the team wishes. The overall price tag is $200 million. The aggressive timeline outlined by team president Jeff Berding calls for a 2020 opening.
One problem: FC Cincinnati pushes against their boundaries with a big stadium dream in a town that might not have an appetite to help them build it. The club is actively pursuing a public-private partnership to fund construction, and with so much public money going to contemporary stadiums for baseball’s Reds and football's Bengals, it’s not clear if there’s a path to success. It also doesn’t help that there isn’t a location yet identified for the building, though a few different sites are under consideration.
It’s probably no coincidence that FC Cincinnati chose to unveil their stadium plans just two days before the team takes on the Columbus Crew in a US Open Cup match. Drawing over 30k for that game only added to the reputation of the Cincinnati area as a latent soccer hotbed ready for Major League Soccer.
There’s something of an “audition” feel to the game for FC Cincinnati. Winning on the field and advancing in the Open Cup would be nice. Perhaps the bigger win is to show off their MLS-worthy market with another big crowd against what could one be a geographic rival.
It’s not that the business of playing and winning soccer games is exactly secondary for FC Cincinnati. However, they're part of a number of second division teams in the US where game results are only part of the organization’s reasons for being. There’s a bigger goal in mind. Everything the club does comes against the backdrop of proving ready for the major league.
Amid the problems in St Louis, San Diego, Charlotte, and elsewhere, Cincinnati stands a good chance of moving up the MLS expansion race pecking order/ Of course, those problems with other expansion bids center around stadium deals.
Finished stadiums rarely look like the initial renderings, for a number of reasons. Renderings are not only a best case scenario, but a means by which the club hopes to generate interest and excitement in their project. Getting a green light is first. Building a venue that measures up to the original designs is secondary. FC Cincinnati is making their first big play in creating the buzz they’ll need to forge that public/private partnership that ends with the opening of a new soccer stadium.
It will take some time to find out if the move will work. What’s not in doubt it that FC Cincinnati will continue to push against their second division limits while they chase first division status.
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