In a typical work environment, logging two successive years of unsightly performance would be met with a directive to pack up your cubicle. Or, in our current health landscape, uninstall any company-owned software on your computer. But the mechanisms of professional sports don’t align with the corporate world, which is why FC Cincinnati embarks on its third Major League Soccer season as the toast of the town despite finishing dead last in each of its first two years.
The mere existence of an MLS club in Cincinnati remains remarkable, to be sure. Less than six years have passed from FC Cincinnati occupying nothing more than cells in FCC President Jeff Berding’s brain to this spring’s public debut of the $250 million West End Stadium, a state-of-the-art soccer-only structure on Central Parkway.
FC Cincinnati’s establishment in 2016 birthed a seemingly overnight swell of support from both city-dwelling, young professional–dominated supporters groups and suburban families seeking to fulfill their children’s soccer obsessions beyond video games and YouTube highlights of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And that was when the club was playing in the United Soccer League, then the third tier of American soccer. As the team found consistent on-field success in USL, fan support soared. In 2018, FC Cincinnati smashed single-game and season attendance marks in its final USL season before placing third in average attendance during its inaugural MLS campaign in 2019.
FC Cincinnati broke ground on its new stadium in late 2018, but since then the club’s supporters haven’t been rewarded with wins. FCC completed a trifecta of despair in 2019: a poorly constructed roster shuffled through three head coaches, scored the fewest goals in the league, and allowed the most goals in MLS history. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the club repeated two of those feats: three head coaches and a league-low tally in goals scored. The defense improved from “historically deficient” to “below average.”
And now 2021 becomes a critical season in Cincinnati. Last year, a pair of expansion sides, Inter Miami and Nashville, qualified for the postseason in their maiden MLS voyages. Another expansion team debuts this season in Austin, Texas, with more to come in the next few years. And FCC’s “Hell Is Real” rival, the Columbus Crew, won the championship. Locally, the club may still be a cuddly upstart to some, but FC Cincinnati will cement itself as the MLS laughingstock if it finishes last in points once again.
If one squinted hard enough at the pitch last season, progress was made. Head coach Jaap Stam, a veteran of high-profile European soccer, is competent and unafraid to experiment with formations. General Manager Gerard Nijkamp’s in-season additions of defensive midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo and 20-year-old winger Alvaro Barreal were inspired, with the former bringing defensive solidity and the latter adding flair on the flanks. Midfielder Frankie Amaya, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, took a step forward, too.
The success of this year’s squad will come down to scoring more goals. Lots of them. And FCC took a huge step forward by signing 21-year-old Brazilian star Brenner, announcing its largest free agent deal ever in February. He’ll certainly take scoring pressure off of striker Jurgen Locadia, the high-profile English Premier League transfer who flopped in 2020, bagging a single score in 17 matches.
COVID has forced the West End Stadium into a modified attendance arrangement for a while this season, inhibiting the opportunity for many of us to experience the shiny new stadium right away. Let’s hope FCC’s scoring opportunities translate into more wins without us.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Find his archive here.