From the outset, FC Cincinnati’s GM Jeff Berding and owner Carl Lindner III have been up-front about their intent to compete in Major League Soccer, stat. The Orange and Blue played well above expectations in 2016, earning the third best record in the United Soccer League (16–6–8) and obliterating attendance records, averaging nearly 6,000 more fans per game than any other USL team.
Yes, FCC enters this season with new manager Alan Koch, who replaced John Harkes sans much explanation. But with MLS beckoning for four new franchises, Cincinnati heads into the season with perhaps more momentum than any of the 12 cities that presented bids. “In terms of the strength of the market, we feel second to none,” Berding says. “The other cities to some degree involve a projection of whether or not they could be a successful pro soccer market. We’re not a projection. ”
MLS lists three key expansion criteria. First, local ownership committed to the sport and proper financial backing. With Lindner et. al., it’s safe to assume the club aced that section. Second, a market with strong fan support and an attractive geographic location. FCC outdrew the entirety of MLS on multiple occasions in 2016, most notably in a 35,061-person sellout of Nippert Stadium against English Premier League’s Crystal Palace. It was no coincidence that MLS Commissioner Don Garber visited following that game. But in terms of market size—and potential television revenue—Cincinnati comes in at No. 36 nationally, which would be the smallest U.S. market in MLS. Third, and certainly most complicated: A stadium plan. A MLS bid would likely mandate the eventual construction of a soccer-specific stadium, so FCC began evaluating possible sites—including the former MIlacron site in Oakley—in November.
FCC leadership is not wavering when it comes to their goal. As Berding tells it: “If long-term we need a soccer-specific stadium, we’re prepared to deal with that. We’re fully committed to bringing the MLS to Cincinnati.”