FC Cincinnati Is Finally Ready For MLS

But the franchise lost some innocence along the way.

FC Cincinnati is supposedly on the doorstep of receiving an Expansion Rose from Major League Soccer after Cincinnati’s City Council approved nearly $40 million be set aside for FCC’s West End stadium, which will only be built if FCC gains entry to MLS. And provided MLS can shake its commitment issues and penchant for non-news, Big 12-esque expansion drama—even if it is, admittedly, a surefire way for the league to remain in the news cycle—nothing should stop MLS commissioner Don Garber from phoning FCC’s offices and requesting a $150 million check from Carl Lindner III sometime over the next few weeks.

But with the possible graduation from the United Soccer League to MLS and the cleared path to a downtown soccer monstrosity providing plenty of fodder for headlines and bar talk, it feels like we’re overlooking one question: Why the rush?

This city is still reeling from a 1996 deal to finance Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park, a pact that looks more and more like a shakedown agreement financed with the Corleone Family as the years go by. Pick your crisis—the opioid epidemic seems like a good place to start—but dollars need to be delegated elsewhere locally.

Unfortunately for FCC and sane governmental logic, MLS turns its back to potential expansion franchises unless they compete in soccer-specific stadiums. (Unless you’re Atlanta United FC, which drew over 48,000 per game in the Falcons’ new stadium in 2017.) So, 65,000-seat Paul Brown Stadium—which each year houses about 10 NFL games, a handful of concerts and proms, plus years of repressed anger-apathy toward the Brown Family—and is located almost exactly one mile due south of FCC’s potential stadium site and within walking distance to ample parking, bars and restaurants, is unfit for an MLS team. Makes total sense. Unbelievably, the same goes for FCC’s present digs, Nippert Stadium. Nippert certainly has its game-day warts—concession lines and parking among them—but it has struck a solid balance of carousing and family friendliness inside the stadium and on the surrounding streets of Clifton.

Alas, those options have already been discussed and litigated and dismissed many times over, in council meetings and on Twitter. But a soul-searching query must also be asked about how a new stadium will impact the West End. FCC inked a ‘community benefits agreement’ with the West End Community Council—whose president is now facing impeachment—and would build Cincinnati Public Schools a Stargel Stadium replacement, but throwing money and concrete at an area still struggling to recover from I-75 construction 60 years ago sounds more like a holistic fever dream that brushes aside more practical neighborhood needs. City council member Tamaya Dennard and members of the West End community have voiced valid concerns about further gentrification caused by the stadium, as well as the viability of its alleged economic impact. (Studies have shown that the economic promise of publicly funded stadiums is a farcical concept.) Next-door neighbor Over-the-Rhine has experienced a well-publicized rebirth over the past decade. But before your next trip to 16-Bit or The Eagle, redirect your eyes from the shiny storefronts and hip bars to the undeveloped areas in and around the renaissance, and you’ll notice that even in a supposed success, gentrification and poverty can remain alive and well.

FCC’s rise to local prominence has been nothing short of meteoric. Its home attendance figures impress game after game. Aside from the messy stadium debate, hardly a negative word can be uttered about the club. On the field, the club has qualified for the postseason twice in its first two USL seasons, which is almost impressive enough to forget the fact that the blue-and-orange have also joined the local one-and-done playoff tradition. (And it must be noted that FCC’s run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals last summer was a much-needed injection of sporting positivity around these parts.)

I get why Lindner wants to be in MLS: a stake in Soccer United Marketing and the certainty of a massive increase in the value of his franchise. I know why the FCC players and coaches (better wages, better working conditions, better competition) and fans (better product) want in. And from a general, outside-looking-in perspective, the story of an upstart soccer club from a mid-sized city like Cincinnati obtaining access to the highest level of American professional soccer less than three years after its birth is a tale ready-made for a feel-good sporting documentary.

But let this be known: FCC shed its purity through the stadium battle with its incessant flip-flopping on sites and its unnecessarily secretive nature about the entire process. And the second the first shovel hits the ground in the West End, FCC’s future becomes interlocked with that of the West End. The real world becomes very real for a very young franchise, which should—and no doubt will—be held intensely accountable for its actions.

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

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