By Jeff Rueter – SAINT PAUL, MN (Feb 22, 2018) US Soccer Players - It was going to take something special to keep FC Cincinnati’s incomparable momentum moving forward. In 2016, the USL side kicked off in front of record-obliterating crowds at Nippert Stadium. In 2017, they shocked MLS side Chicago Fire in the US Open Cup and forced New York Red Bulls into extra time in the tournament’s semifinal. Meanwhile, they silenced any doubts about the level of commitment among a front office headed by Bengals and Reds executives. Soccer is absolutely the priority in Cincinnati, and a burgeoning fan culture is all the proof you need.
The elephant in the introductory paragraph, of course, is an incredibly likely impending entrance into Major League Soccer. The league announced Nashville and Miami in recent months, leaving Cincinnati fans wondering if and when they’ll have a party of their own with MLS commissioner Don Garber and other luminaries.
For any lower-division team with top-flight aspirations, it’s inevitable that one project will take precedence over the other. In 2011, the Montreal Impact was a founding member of the second iteration of the NASL. Their one-and-only campaign in the league was a forgettable one. Six out of eight teams ended up making the first NASL Soccer Bowl playoffs. Montreal finished seventh. However, that season gave year-long trials to potential MLS players, finding four who would make the transition with the team. Of those, Evan Bush and Hassoun Camara became longtime mainstays.
In 2016, Minnesota United entered the season with a slight question surrounding its entry date. The Loons weren’t officially announced for the 2017 season until mid-August. Still, the team brought in NASL stars like Stefano Pinho and Lance Laing, as well as MLS veterans like Jeb Brovsky, Danny Cruz, Bernardo Anor, and Ben Speas. Like the Impact, Minnesota finished just short of the playoff positions. However, they brought seven players from its NASL roster to MLS. Minnesota also brought back franchise-face Miguel Ibarra after 18 months in Liga MX.
In a few ways, Cincinnati sizes up comparably to Minnesota. While the Twin Cities are the 15th largest TV market in the US, the Ohio city clocks in at 36 — only two behind Kansas City. Still, Cincinnati is a lively city with a growing young population who’ve taken fondly to the world’s game. Neither has the glitz of New York or Los Angeles, but neither pretends to be a tourist city. Like so many of these mid-market teams in MLS, Cincinnati will need to be savvy in how it builds its roster ahead of a very-likely expansion slot.
Few teams nailed their offseason quite like FC Cincinnati. First, They signed Champions League veteran and Israeli national team center back Dekel Keinan who, fittingly, trialed with Minnesota during June 2016). Former Middlesbrough and New York Cosmos winger Emmanuel Ledesma will help lead the attack. Highly-coveted midfielder Nazmi Albadawi left his hometown North Carolina FC amidst MLS interest for FCC. Other NASL standouts like Laing, Tomi Ameobi, and Emery Welshman joined the cause. Most recently, two-time NASL Best XI defensive midfielder Richie Ryan left Miami FC for Ohio.
All-told, there’s more talent than can fit onto a field at one time. That isn’t a bad thing. Double-game weeks are more common in the USL than in MLS. For a team that suffered US Open Cup heartbreak last year, they'll certainly be hungry to make more noise this time around.
Until MLS affirms its next expansion side, there will be questions of focus and intention in Cincinnati. On paper, at least half a dozen players seem capable of making the leap to the next level. Once a team officially gets the MLS expansion nod, many more players flock to them in hopes of latching on.
MLS expansion is a most expensive game of musical chairs. Twelve teams danced around four chairs while David Beckham spun the record from his own reserved seat. Nashville has already claimed a seat of its own. No team seems more poised to find its place than FC Cincinnati at the moment. If their offseason roster moves are any indication, they anticipate a break in the music very shortly.
Jeff Rueter is a reporter and analyst covering Major League Soccer for The Guardian, ESPN FC, The Athletic - Minnesota, and USSoccerPlayers. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffrueter.