Did FC Cincinnati Make a Mistake by Joining MLS So Soon?

It’s true that FCC was rushed into the league, but the franchise’s terrible on-field results can’t simply be blamed on a decision made in 2018.

Back in April, FC Cincinnati majority owner Carl Lindner III confirmed that after Major League Soccer granted his club an expansion franchise in May 2018, the league requested that the new kids on the block join the league less than 11 months later. “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),” Lindner said. “We had fun. I think our fans had fun and just being a part of MLS. But yeah, maybe we should have waited another year.”

Lindner’s bullet train analogy was apt, given that the organization had been dividing its time between checking off the various tasks to be fulfilled just to be in serious expansion consideration—such as attempting to seal a new stadium deal with the city (another prerequisite for most MLS expansion teams)—as well as securing the land for a training facility in Milford. Oh, and FC Cincinnati was also fielding a team that would win the 2018 United Soccer League regular-season points title.

The franchise was already stretched to its limit and would need to avoid any major slip-ups as it pushed uphill to meet the seemingly impossible task of fielding a competitive MLS outfit in 2019. More than three years after FC Cincinnati was awarded entry into Major League Soccer, we know now that FCC fell flat on its face.

As I watched Nashville, a 2020 expansion team, wax listless FC Cincinnati 3-0 this past Saturday night, my mind ran back to the abnormally short runway the visitors were provided to prepare themselves for MLS. Here are the nine most recent franchises to garner MLS expansion bids. A stark contrast exists between the time FC Cincinnati had to ready itself for Major League Soccer in comparison to the other organizations.

FranchiseAwarded MLS franchiseFirst MLS game
AtlantaApril 2014March 2017
Los Angeles FCOctober 2014March 2018
MinnesotaMarch 2015March 2017
NashvilleDecember 2017February 2020
Inter MiamiJanuary 2018March 2020
FC CincinnatiMay 2018March 2019
AustinJanuary 2019April 2021
St. LouisAugust 2019Scheduled for 2023 season
CharlotteDecember 2019Scheduled for 2022 season

 

Remove FC Cincinnati from the equation, and the minimum amount of time allotted for the past nine expansion franchises has been two years. Unsurprisingly, “big market” teams were afforded longer runways—almost exactly three years for Atlanta and about 3.5 years for Los Angeles. (St. Louis was scheduled to join the league in 2022, but the pandemic pushed back its entry date.) Again, FCC were granted less than a year to prepare for the top level of American soccer.

Here’s how FC Cincinnati and the five other expansion teams to join MLS between 2014 and 2020 have fared since joining the league. (The pandemic-shortened 2020 season had 23 league matches; the others had 34.)

FranchiseFirst seasonFirst playoff appearance
Atlanta55 points; 4th in East2017
Minnesota36 points; 9th in West2019
Los Angeles Football Club57 points; 3rd in West2018
FC Cincinnati24 points; 12th (last) in Eastn/a
Nashville32 points; 7th in East2020
Inter Miami24 points; 10th in East2020

 

Backed by an ownership group willing to spend money and a savvy front office, Atlanta hit the ground running and won the MLS Cup in its second season. Minnesota finished in the bottom third of the West in its first two years before making the playoffs in 2019 and advancing to the semifinals of the West playoffs a season ago. Los Angeles (LAFC) has made the postseason in each of its three years and claimed the league’s top regular season record in 2019. Miami benefitted from the league’s expanded postseason in 2020 (10 playoff teams in the East, eight in the West), and Nashville, a burgeoning Eastern power, nabbed what normally would have been the East’s final playoff spot in its inaugural season. FC Cincinnati, of course, has never been close to playoff contention through its first two-plus campaigns in Major League Soccer, setting records for futility in a variety of categories along the way.

The club has done itself no favors with multiple decisions that were separate from its unfairly short MLS runway, such as importing too many players from its dominant 2018 USL team into its first MLS squad and whiffing in both the 2018 expansion draft and the 2019 SuperDraft, the latter of which featured FC Cincinnati bizarrely trading for all of Philadelphia’s 2019 SuperDraft picks in exchange for a large chunk of precious allocation money. FCC had eight selections for an increasingly useless roster-building event, and only one of those players (goalkeeper Ben Lundt) remains with the organization. Throw in ownership waiting until May 2019 to hire a general manager (Gerard Nijkamp) with a soccer background—after all of these crucial roster-building decisions were made—firing its head coach in each of its first two seasons, and suffering through high-profile Designated Player flops (Fanendo Adi, Jurgen Locadia), and you have a recipe for one of the worst starts for a franchise in MLS history.

So did FC Cincinnati make a mistake by accepting MLS’s ultra-quick onboarding process? Given what we know now, hell yes. But, in spite of what I’ve outlined, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Lindner and his ownership group would have said no to MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

For one, FC Cincinnati risked falling down the expansion pecking order, and at the time Sacramento was a legitimate option to be picked ahead of FCC. Two, FC Cincinnati would have been postponing participating in MLS revenue-sharing, a system not nearly as lucrative for team owners as other American pro sports but a set-up that makes stepping up from the minors a no-brainer. And, lastly, while FC Cincinnati were undeniably screwed over, the club has compounded its problems by slipping on self-created banana peels to ensure little discernible on-field progress.

As the midpoint of the 2021 campaign nears, the Orange and Blue are closing in on another lost season that’s failing to sniff mediocrity. Next up is another chance for FC Cincinnati (13 points, 12th in East) to nab its first victory at TQL Stadium, a Saturday night date vs. D.C. United (20 points, 8th in East).

FCC will return two typical starters, left back Ronald Matarrita and midfielder Allan Cruz, after their international duty with Costa Rica ended last Sunday. With a week of rest following three matches across three time zones and two countries in eight days, FC Cincinnati should deliver a much better showing than its no-shots-on-target performance against a well-run, well-oiled Nashville side. Claiming a long-awaited home victory would be a welcome (but small) step forward for the beleaguered franchise, too.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Off the pitch, he is the managing editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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