Can FC Cincinnati Shock the Soccer World Again?

The uncomfortable sprint to the finish was worth it. Major League Soccer has granted FC Cincinnati admission into North America’s top tier of professional soccer next season, meaning the franchise will not have to jockey with Nashville and Miami (each slated to join MLS in 2020) for players in an expansion draft or for the No. 1 overall selection in the next MLS SuperDraft.

Depending on how the 2019 MLS schedule shakes out, the likes of visiting world soccer stars Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, and David Villa could get their first taste of Skyline chili, Graeter’s ice cream, and Rhinegeist beer while FC Cincinnati fans see them in person for the first time. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity local soccer fans will never forget and could not have fathomed as recently as three years ago.

FC Cincinnati’s rise to stardom has offered no paucity of striking moments, with the constant attendance records, international matches against Premier League and La Liga squads, and last season’s run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals sitting atop the highlight reel. Save for its stadium shadiness, the club has drawn widespread acclaim for its on- and off-the-field showings. The world’s game now has a major league franchise in Cincinnati; not even the Coen brothers could have penned this weird of a script.

Still, can FC Cincinnati now surprise us again by preserving its incandescent soul and following up on its various pledges to the city? Among the lingering questions…

Ticket prices will inevitably rise, but will Carl Lindner III resist the urge to outprice those young professionals and suburban families who regularly fill Nippert Stadium’s bleachers?

Can head coach Alan Koch, technical director Luke Sassano, and president/general manager Jeff Berding reshape the roster for the rigors of MLS? Time is not on their side, and this trio must also focus on the present United Soccer League campaign, where FC Cincinnati (6-2-3) sits second in the Eastern Conference.

Will FC Cincinnati be able to fulfill its promise to the West End? Formerly Over-the-Rhine’s forgotten neighbor, the West End now enters a complicated relationship that places a great deal of its future in the hands of a fledgling soccer club.

FC Cincinnati’s savvy, deep pockets, and organizational acumen—plus a little luck—have carried it this far. But while MLS Commissioner Don Garber appeared genuinely happy and moved by FC Cincinnati’s collective hold on the city and rise to MLS during his public remarks, his praise was also met with expectation-raising.

“They’re MLS ready. They’ve operated a club with capacity crowds, with a great brand, with a real focus on performance and excellence on and off the field, getting into the community, dealing with philanthropy the right way,” Garber told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “And that shouldn’t be lost on anybody. They’ve done a lot of things right and we’re very, very confident they’ll continue operating that way.”

And as for the forthcoming stadium, Garber compared the West End site to two footballing cathedrals whose inhabitants are Real Madrid and Liverpool, European giants that recently squared off in the Champions League final.

“We fought hard over the last six months … to get a stadium site that is unprecedented,” Gaber said per Sports Illustrated. “This could be (Santiago) Bernabéu. This could be Anfield. You have a stadium that’s going to be built in a great, great part of the community.”

So, again, a hearty congrats to FC Cincinnati. What an accomplishment. Now, don’t screw it up. The eyes of Cincinnati and the soccer world are upon you.

Grant Freking is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

 

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