Comparing FC Cincinnati and St. Louis City’s Paths to MLS

FCC visits newcomer St. Louis for the first time but will be without its captain, Lucho Acosta, for a bit.

For the seventh consecutive season, Major League Soccer welcomed at least one expansion club into the league. St. Louis City SC became the league’s 29th team in 2023, following Charlotte (2022), Austin (2021), Inter Miami and Nashville (2020), FC Cincinnati (2019), Los Angeles FC (2018), and Atlanta and Minnesota (2017).

Lucho Acosta scored on a penalty kick vs. the Philadelphia Union April 8.

Photograph by Joseph Guzy

In seven seasons, the league has increased the number of teams from 20 to 29. That growth is unheard of in comparison to North America’s other major professional leagues, even when considering MLS’s first season was 1996. But since money talks, remember that the league is raking in Scrooge McDuck amounts of cash through expansion fees. St. Louis dropped $200 million to enter the league, a bump from the $150 million Cincinnati paid.

St. Louis and FC Cincinnati play for the first time this weekend in CityPark, the expansion’s club brand-new 22,500-seat stadium. And although St. Louis has been humbled after its record start, the matchup has lots of intriguing storylines between the two Midwestern franchises.

Female ownership

Carolyn Kindle is president and CEO of the St Louis City ownership group, the first female majority-owned franchise in MLS. Kindle, the granddaughter of Enterprise Rent-A-Car founder Jack Taylor, is the president of Enterprise Holdings Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm. Her mother, aunt, uncle, and fellow granddaughters are all part of the club’s ownership group.

And though Carl Lindner III is FC Cincinnati’s controlling owner, a big reason why Cincinnati has been able to buy players like Brenner for a reported $13 million or attract rising soccer minds like General Manager Chris Albright or head coach Pat Noonan is the additional financial muscle provided by managing owner Meg Whitman. Whitman, who began her professional career at Procter & Gamble, is a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and eBay and now serves as the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya.

Contrasting runways to expansion

On August 20, 2019, five and half months after FC Cincinnati’s first MLS match, Kindle’s ownership group was awarded an expansion bid. St. Louis had three and a half years to prepare for its inaugural MLS campaign; the COVID-19 pandemic pushed St. Louis’ original entry season from 2022 to 2023. Given its lengthy runway, St. Louis was able to complete CityPark well in advance of its March 4 opener, a 3-1 victory over Charlotte. Its MLS Next Pro side actually began play in 2022, reaching the Next Pro final, and five players from that team made St. Louis’ first-ever MLS roster.

Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati was dealt a much tougher hand. Ownership risked falling down the expansion pecking order if it failed to accept MLS’s bid in May 2018, an agreement that meant FC Cincinnati would begin MLS play in 2019. Two years ago, in the lead-up to the opening of TQL Stadium, Lindner addressed this very conundrum.

“From a business perspective or … building a really competitive team, that clearly wasn’t ideal. … I have mixed feelings about whether we should have waited another year or not. Clearly our supporters were ready but this has been a bullet train and, you know, we did the best that we could with the MLS request to play that first year [in 2019]. … But yeah, maybe we should have waited another year.”

With TQL Stadium not opening until May 2021, FC Cincinnati played the 2019 and 2020 seasons at UC’s Nippert Stadium and played the first three matches of the 2021 season away from Cincinnati.

(Very) early success

No first-year MLS franchise has enjoyed a better beginning than St. Louis, which became the first expansion team and just the third club ever to win its first five matches in a season. St. Louis also scored a league-high 15 goals in those five tilts. But reality has sunk in over the past two weeks with back-to-back shutout losses. Following its first home defeat two weekends ago to Minnesota, St. Louis was dominated in Seattle 3-0 last Saturday.

Though FC Cincinnati didn’t enjoy quite the same level of initial success as St. Louis during its initial MLS season, the Orange and Blue did pick up eight points from its first six matches before losing 11 of their next 12 games.

St. Louis will face another litmus Saturday evening with FC Cincinnati, which in spite of its sputtering front line and uneven play leads the Supporters’ Shield standings after seven weeks. Cincinnati will be short-handed in St Louis. Lucho Acosta injured his shoulder in last week’s 1-0 victory over Philadelphia and may not suit up the rest of the month. Midfielders Obinna Nwobodo and Yuya Kubo were still training separately from the rest of the team as of Tuesday evening.

Sans its creative nucleus in Acosta, FC Cincinnati could be content to sit back and rely on its suddenly stout defense, which has yielded just one second half score all season and is tied for the MLS lead in clean sheets with five.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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