FC Cincinnati will be granted the next MLS expansion bid and will jump Miami and Nashville in order of joining the league.
There was a delay, but that extra six months appear to have paid off. FC Cincinnati and Major League Soccer have secured the downtown stadium they always wanted, and as a result, the protracted process to identify a 26th team will end next Tuesday as the third-year USL club announces its move to the top-tier league.
FCC will begin MLS play at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium in 2019, sources have told SI.com. The club has been assessing the improvements necessary to host MLS games at the 40,000-seat venue for some time. It will play at Nippert while a new stadium in the city’s West End neighborhood is constructed. That 21,000-seat facility likely would open in 2021.
FCC’s 2019 entry technically makes it the 24th (existing) team to play MLS games, but Nashville SC and David Beckham’s Miami club already have been welcomed officially as league members. Nashville and Miami are expected to begin play in 2020. Beckham’s right to secure a franchise is a decade old, and Nashville was the first winner of the 12-city sweepstakes launched in January 2017.
That race was designed to identify clubs No. 25 and 26. Nashville, Cincinnati, Sacramento and Detroit were named finalists last November, and John Ingram’s Music City bid was given the green light the following month thanks to a stadium deal at the Fairgrounds Nashville.
MLS originally had hoped to name a second entrant before year's end, but stadium issues in Cincinnati and Detroit and an ownership shortfall in Sacramento resulted in a delay. FCC had a bead on a stadium site in suburban Oakley. But rather than rush into a less-than-ideal location, Cincinnati used the hiccups in Detroit and Sacramento to its advantage, and turned its attention and resources toward the West End. MLS was in no hurry. And after reaching deals with the local school board and city council, among other entities, the club had made enough progress to make Tuesday’s forthcoming announcement a reality.
FC Cincinnati confirmed the timing of a “special event” with a press release Thursday afternoon. The club, led by financial services billionaire Carl Lindner III, will host Mayor John Cranley and MLS commissioner Don Garber at a brewery in Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood that sits about a half-mile northeast of the West End site.
Answers concerning an expansion draft, potential brand tweak and other details likely won’t come until after Cincy’s entry is confirmed. MLS also will have to address its competitive structure as three teams from the Eastern half of the country come aboard. At the moment, the Eastern Conference has 11 clubs and the Western has 12, the imbalance created by Los Angeles FC’s arrival this season. There’s no indication the league is considering going to three conferences, meaning one Eastern team is going to be racking up frequent flier miles if the Columbus Crew do not relocate to Austin, Texas.
FC Cincinnati averaged more nearly 21,200 fans at USL regular season games last season and has drawn an average of 23,897 to its first four home contests this year.
MLS has committed to fielding at least 28 clubs, but no formal process has been announced regarding the procedure or timing. Sacramento Republic, with a stadium site secured, is considered the heavy favorite to grab one of those final two spots. SI.com understands that the club continues to negotiate with potential investors. If a billionaire is brought on board alongside owner Kevin Nagle, Republic should get in.