On Sunday afternoon, FC Cincinnati hosts Sporting Kansas City, a charter member of Major League Soccer. The franchise, whose original moniker was the Kansas City Wiz—good thing that name didn’t last—is an interesting study. It isn’t a well-known, sexy MLS club like Atlanta United, Seattle Sounders, or the two Los Angeles teams.
I’d wager the average Cincinnatian likely isn’t aware of the existence of professional soccer in the Kansas City metro area. And yet Sporting KC is the ideal model for what FC Cincinnati could be. The two franchises are already similar in two areas: attendance and market size.
Attendance: FC Cincinnati broke multiple United Soccer League attendance records during its three years in the league, and drew a sellout crowd of 32,250 for its MLS home debut against Portland on March 17. Sporting KC entered 2019 having sold out 18,467-seat Children’s Mercy Park in 123 straight games. Fun fact: Children’s Mercy Park is located in Kansas City, Kansas. Sporting KC’s main office is in Kansas City, Missouri. Two cities with the same name in different states, separated by the Kansas River and the Missouri River. Got it? In any case, as long as FC Cincinnati is competitive, attendance should never be an issue here.
Market size: Both franchises are located in medium-sized Midwestern cities. Both also compete locally with MLB and NFL franchises, a rarity given the two cities’ location and population. (Cleveland is in a similar situation, but replace an MLS team with the NBA’s Cavaliers.)
The similarities end at my next two points, but FC Cincinnati is chiefly the victim of youth in these areas.
Sustained success: FCC’s on-field product debuted in 2016, while Sporting KC’s founding predates AOL Instant Messenger, so this category is a bit unfair. Nonetheless, the Orange and Blue can hope to replicate what’s been a remarkable history of winning in Kansas City. Through 23 MLS campaigns, Sporting has won the Supporters’ Shield (awarded for best regular-season record) once; reached the playoffs 17 times, including eight years in a row and 10 out of the past 12 years; claimed four U.S. Open Cups (three from 2012 to 2017); and qualified for the MLS Cup on three occasions, winning twice. FC Cincinnati made the playoffs in each of its three seasons in the USL, reached the semifinals of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup, won the regular-season USL crown in 2018, and enjoyed a 24-game unbeaten run last year. With two wins, two losses, and a draw so far in MLS, FCC has proven it deserves to be taken seriously despite its expansion status, and Sporting KC provides the club with something realistic to aspire to.
Club infrastructure: Sporting KC’s continued success can in part be traced to the steady hand of Peter Vermes, the longtime coach and sporting director. The former MLS player has coached the club since 2009 and recently won the inaugural MLS Sporting Executive of the Year award. Vermes’ duties include overseeing Sporting KC Academy, which was named MLS Academy of the Year in 2018, and the franchise’s minor league outfit, the Swope Park Rangers, which competes in USL. It would be a stretch to say that Swope Park has been a talent factory for Sporting KC, but it’s provided squad players and regularly plays deep into the USL’s postseason. Due to its age, FC Cincinnati obviously has a ways to go in this department, as it’s yet to fully launch its academy and hasn’t decided whether to start its own USL franchise.
FC Cincinnati has never been short on ambition. It has spent money and scouted the far reaches of the soccer world to assemble quality USL and MLS rosters. Its downtown stadium, scheduled to open in 2021, was approved in relatively short order amid much controversy. FCC successfully operated an arduous campaign to just get into MLS; staying relevant will be another immensely difficult challenge. But it need not look far to see it can be done by a franchise with similar attributes.