By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 15, 2019) US Soccer Players - The truth is that for FC Cincinnati, Sunday’s home Major League Soccer debut wasn’t exactly “a long time coming”. At least not if we’re judging by the amount of time between MLS making the expansion announcement in May of 2018 and the upcoming game against Portland at Nippert Stadium on March 18, 2019.
The fans of other recent expansion teams had to wait much longer between expansion celebration and inaugural home game. LAFC went 1,277 days between the two events, Minnesota United 718 days, and Atlanta United 1,054 days before starting life in a temporary venue at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. FC Cincinnati’s turnaround between birth and first home match will be 292 days at kickoff on Sunday.
FC Cincinnati is also playing in a “temporary” home stadium in the club’s first MLS season. The plans are in place for a new venue in the West End neighborhood, with construction expected to open in 2021. The new Cincinnati stadium was a prerequisite for the city to get a call up to MLS. With so many cities vying for a spot in the league, MLS officials have held firm on pushing bidding ownership groups to firm up stadium construction plans in the “urban core” of their markets before making expansion official.
The quotes are necessary around “temporary” if only because FC Cincinnati’s situation is dramatically different from that of Minnesota United, Atlanta United, and LAFC. Each of those clubs played in venues new to them or went straight into their new permanent homes in their first seasons. FC Cincinnati will spend the wait for the West End playing in a stadium very well known to both the club and its fans.
Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati was FCC’s home venue for each of its three seasons in the USL. It was Nippert that served as the backdrop for Cincinnati’s explosion onto the professional soccer scene in the United States, where crowds of 30,000 become the norm for second division soccer in Cincinnati.
FC Cincinnati’s remarkable run in the 2017 US Open Cup, a run that likely did more to push Cincinnati to the front of the expansion line than anything else, had its biggest moments at Nippert Stadium. FCC beat the Columbus Crew in the fourth round in front of a crowd of 30,160, then bested that number twice more in the tournament.
The massive crowd that showed up for the game against Columbus convinced ESPN to broadcast the club’s next match in the Open Cup, a penalty shootout triumph over the Chicago Fire in front of 32,287 people. FCC’s winning run ended in the quarterfinals against the Red Bulls. 33,250 fans in the building made another weighty impression despite the loss.
Minnesota, like FC Cincinnati, existed as a lower division club before making the move to MLS. Unlike FCC, United couldn’t use their lower division home as a temporary base in MLS. Size and location requirements forced MNUFC to play the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium for two seasons ahead of the opening of a stadium in St Paul this season rather than at NSC Stadium in Blaine. That change of venues was fundamental in making the MLS version of Minnesota feel new.
Atlanta famously packed 50,000 into Bobby Dodd Stadium to see its launch before migrating to Mercedes-Benz Stadium but didn’t exist in any form before that first game in 2017. LAFC might be the spiritual reincarnation of Chivas USA, but there was no on-field identity for the club before the 2018 debut.
That makes FC Cincinnati special and the club’s home opener at Nippert Stadium unique in the latest wave of expansion. Not since Orlando jumped into MLS and started play at the Citrus Bowl has a team made the top division move and hosted home matches in the first stadium they called home. FC Cincinnati may be playing in a new league, but the feel of the club for the fans won’t be all that different than it was in 2016, 2017, or 2018.
Earlier this week, the club announced 30,000 tickets sold for the game against Portland, guaranteeing that the atmosphere will be equally as raucous as those seen at the USL level in years past. It’s impossible for FC Cincinnati to set a new attendance record because slight changes to the configuration will limit capacity to 32,250. An MLS sellout would put the game fourth on FCC’s all-time single-game attendance list. Regardless, the number will still represent a triumph.
Whatever the rest of the season brings, FC Cincinnati will have this first home match to look back on. This is a team riding the wave largely created by its fan base from USL to the top level of soccer in the United States.
The season might not go as poorly as the pundits expect if the results from Sunday is an indication of the team’s potential. The short runup to the inaugural MLS campaign forced the club to scramble together a roster from MLS veterans, USL carryovers, and a select group of internationals. There is clearly talent in the group. Head coach Alan Koch is learning the MLS ropes. The returns will probably be up and down all season. What matters for FC Cincinnati is that the club is competitive and gives fans hope for a bright future.
When the West End Stadium opens in a few years, FC Cincinnati will get another chance to celebrate. By then, the club will be two seasons in and the new club smell will have worn off. The occasion will be momentous, but it won’t have the same feeling as the first MLS home game at the place where the legend of FC Cincinnati and its enormous, passionate fan base was born.
A loss of that organic, special feeling is something to guard against for FCC. New and state-of-the-art doesn’t always ensure success, even when the club is well-stocked with goodwill. Cincinnati soccer fans are likely to be as fickle as any. It’s always dangerous to assume otherwise. MLS may have required the club secure a plan for a brand new soccer-specific stadium to gain entry to the league, precluding remaining at Nippert, but the identity established there is among the club’s most important assets.
The curtain-raiser on Sunday will be a showcase of FC Cincinnati in its natural environment. What comes in 2021 might not be better or worse than the version of the club that we see today, but it will different. Those watching from beyond the Queen City should take note of this weekend’s match not just because it’s a first. It’s a first happening against a well-worn backdrop that is beautiful in its own way.
More From Jason Davis:
- The MLS forwards in USMNT camp
- MLS and Liga MX parity waits on Champions League results
- Early returns from the MLS newcomers
- Year two of LAFC vs the Galaxy
Photo by Greg Bartram - ISIPhotos.com