The FC Cincinnati Fan’s Guide to MLS

On Saturday night, FC Cincinnati will formally celebrate—that sounds like one giant humblebrag, right?—its entry into Major League Soccer, nearly two months after MLS officially accepted FCC. On the field, the Blue and Orange (13-5-3 record and league-best 44 points) are unbeaten in 10 games, comfortably ahead of the pack in the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference. Midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma, the league leader in assists, was the fan’s choice for midseason USL player of the year.

But unless local soccer supporters follow the Columbus Crew or tune in on weekends when MLS games are broadcast nationally by ESPN and Fox, chances are their knowledge base is thin when it comes to North America’s highest level of pro soccer. (And who can blame them, given the ever-increasing television availability of Europe’s top leagues.) What follows is an informal guide to FC Cincinnati’s upcoming itinerary for MLS play.

Once FCC’s season ends, what happens next?

Should FCC advance through the postseason and play for the USL Cup, its season wouldn’t culminate until mid-November (based on the 2017 playoff schedule). FCC’s technical staff is already scouring other regions of the world to enhance the roster for MLS play. The team will move into its new Milford-based training complex in January (I’m still bitter about the demolition of Expressway Park, my softball team’s longtime home) and, if recent MLS season-openers hold true, will commence its initial MLS campaign in early March.

How will FCC upgrade its roster to compete in MLS?

After its final USL campaign, FCC will look to both the domestic and international transfer markets to recruit new talent to ensure the team will be competitive in Major League Soccer. FCC will also make use of two additional resources to fill out its first MLS roster: the expansion draft and the MLS SuperDraft.

When MLS granted FCC entry into the league as its 24th team for the 2019 season as opposed to 2020 with Miami and Nashville, Cincinnati was guaranteed to have its own expansion draft and the No. 1 pick in the SuperDraft (similar to drafts in MLB, the NBA, the NFL, and the NHL.) In the expansion draft, FCC will be able to take up to five players, with existing teams able to protect 11 of its own players (if the 2017 expansion draft rules are carried over). Other protections are built in for existing teams to retain their top talent, so the chances of FCC drafting a straightaway star are slim, but the expansion draft is a good way to build out squad depth. As for the SuperDraft, it has four rounds, with FCC owning the first pick. Recent ex-No. 1 overall picks in the SuperDraft include Abu Danladi, Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2017; Jack Harrison (2016), who played last season for Middlesbrough in the second division of English soccer; and Cyle Larin, who broke the league’s rookie scoring record for Orlando City in 2015.

What exactly is MLS?

The league’s inaugural season was in 1996, but its formation was a key pitch in the United States’ successful bid to host the 1994 World Cup. MLS operates differently than pro baseball, football, basketball, etc., because each team is owned by the league’s investors, rather than individual owners. A handful of key differences also separate MLS from top-flight football in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, and many other countries. The first is that there is no promotion/relegation between America’s top soccer leagues; at the end of European leagues’ seasons, some of the worst teams are relegated to a lower division while the better teams are promoted. Furthermore, the MLS regular season runs from March through October, followed by the playoffs; league play in Europe runs from late August through mid-May with no postseason.

Will FC Cincinnati have its own minor league team?

Atlanta, LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Portland, Seattle, and Toronto are MLS clubs that own “II” or “2” teams competing in USL that are comprised of non-major league players from those clubs. Multiple MLS squads that don’t own USL clubs have an affiliation agreement with a USL squad (think MLB teams with minor league franchises). Per a recent article in The Athletic, FCC isn’t sure what it wants to do quite yet.

Will ticket prices increase?

They already have, but FCC claims it will have the lowest average ticket price in the MLS next season. A bigger jump will likely occur once the club moves into its new stadium.

Oh yeah, there’s a stadium being built, right?

The shovels should be broken out by the end of the year. The West End-based stadium is scheduled to open for the 2021 season, and it’s anticipated that the structure will accommodate at least 21,000 fans, with a possible capacity close to 30,000 in play as well. FCC’s USL-best attendance average is nearly 25,000 fans per game in 2018.

Anything else I should know?

* The club recently hired a global branding firm (with a Cincinnati office) to craft its new image in preparation for the move to MLS.

* Recent expansion teams have produced mixed results. Los Angeles Football Club, headed by former U.S. men’s national team coach Bob Bradley, began play this year and is thriving, currently sitting second in the Western Conference standings with a conference-best 42 goals. In 2017, Atlanta United and Minnesota United entered the league; the former finished fourth in the East and bowed out in the playoffs’ opening knockout round, while the latter placed ninth out of 11 West teams.

* MLS teams are still bringing over aging European stars—see Zlatan Ibrahimović and Wayne Rooney—but that trend is diminishing, and teams are starting to invest in more affordable talent available across Latin America. It’s likely FC Cincinnati will look to mine those same areas.

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

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