MLS officially grew to 26 clubs on Tuesday evening, and committed to fielding 24 next season, as FC Cincinnati finally received its formal welcome to the league from commissioner Don Garber, ending an 18-month race to fill the first two of four planned expansion berths (excluding Miami). The announcement at an Over-the-Rhine brewery took place less than a mile from the West End site where FCC will open its new stadium in 2021.
The current USL club will begin competing in MLS next year, however, as the top-tier league seeks an even number of teams. FCC will continue to play at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, which has been home since 2016, until its new 21,000-seat venue is ready. Recent expansion teams Orlando City, Atlanta United and Minnesota United have taken similar approaches.
It’s the stadium that sealed the deal for FCC, which already brought a wealthy, well-connected local lead owner in Carl Lindner III and impressive and proven fan support to the table. But that wasn’t enough to vault the country’s 35th-largest media market past Sacramento (No. 20) and Detroit (No. 14)—the other finalists this round—and into a 26-team league. The stadium location had to be ideal. And suburban Oakley, the club’s best option last year, wasn’t it. The thriving West End was. Eventually, after lengthy negotiations with the city council and other entities, a deal was struck last month that’ll see Lindner and his partners finance the stadium (as well as the reconstruction of a high school stadium now at the site), while the city kicks in some $34 million in infrastructure assistance.
Garber’s enthusiasm for the West End was apparent Tuesday, as he referenced to a couple of legendary European venues.
“We fought hard over the last six months … to get a stadium site that is unprecedented,” he said. “This could be Bernabéu. This could be Anfield. You have a stadium that’s going to be built in a great, great part of the community.”
That community has been incredibly supportive, which is what took a city that was on nobody’s expansion radar in 2015 to Tuesday. Regular season USL attendance has jumped from an eye-catching average of 17,296 in its inaugural campaign (2016) and a playoff crowd exceeding 30,000, to a record-setting average of 24,416 so far this spring. And crowds during last year’s U.S. Open Cup run, which included more than 32,000 at a round-of-16 victory over the Chicago Fire and 33,250 at the semifinal loss to the New York Red Bulls (both weeknights), demonstrated the city’s fervor and soccer savvy.
“You should be incredibly proud of your meteoric rise as one of our continents most incredible soccer cities,” Garber said at Tuesday’s event.
After FCC begins play next year, expansion teams in Nashville (the other winner of the 12-market sweepstakes) and Miami (promised to David Beckham in early 2014) are expected to take the field in 2020. That’ll leave two spots available. MLS hasn’t established a timetable or procedure to fill them, but it’s expected that Sacramento, Detroit, Phoenix and San Diego will be among the early favorites.
Sacramento Republic, which fell behind Cincinnati when it became clear owner Kevin Nagle needed additional investment, said the following in a series of Tuesday tweets: "This announcement does not impact Sacramento’s ability to join MLS. We remain in regular communication with the league and commissioner Garber and are working around the clock to secure a new lead investor to finalize our bid.”
Cincinnati’s entry also has raised questions about the precarious state of the Columbus Crew, whose owner, Anthony Precourt, wants to move the club to Austin, Texas. The Crew weren't a factor in awarding a spot to Cincinnati. If the tide turns somehow and the team stays in Columbus, there’s the possibility of a heated and absorbing rivalry. If the Crew depart for Texas, FCC’s potential to reach future fans in Dayton and other communities south of the state capital increases. As far as MLS is concerned, Lindner and the market proved themselves worthy independent of the hardship in Columbus.
Garber addressed the issue prior to Tuesday’s announcement.
"It’s hard for me to say what I expect [from a possible Ohio rivalry]. But I will say, that there’s no doubt Columbus and Cincinnati would be great rivals together,” he said, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. “But we’ve got work to do to see what our future is in Columbus."
Given FCC's short runway–it'll open its first MLS preseason camp in eight months–there a few more issues that weren't discussed during Tuesday's program that need to be addressed relatively soon. The league mentioned in a press release that no decision has been made about which conference the club will join. The Eastern is the obvious destination–it currently has 11 members while the Western has 12–but Nashville and Miami's entry will create an imbalance in 2020. Determining the Crew's future likely will be the first alignment domino to fall.
There also was no mention Tuesday regarding the timing or rules of a potential expansion draft, and only hints regarding any possible tweaking of the brand. FCC's blue and orange colors were everywhere and almost certainly will remain, while a crown–Cincinnati is the Queen City–was used on league graphics. The club's primary icon is the winged lion of St. Mark the Evangelist. It's a traditional Christian symbol. League outfitter Adidas typically needs more than a year to prepare uniforms, kit and merchandise, although it's worked faster for a couple clubs in the past.