MLS Here We Go
Major League Soccer is coming to Cincinnati. FC Cincinnati will be entering MLS starting next year, playing at Nippert Stadium, until a brand new stadium is built just behind historic Music Hall in downtown Cincinnati. And it still feels like a dream.
I am a soccer fan because of what I believe soccer means to the world. It is a shared history that everyone participates in. It’s a lens through which to view the world that turns traditional powers into minnows and countries that are often forgotten when it comes to geopolitics into global giants. Soccer is the best thing to come out of globalization. An interconnected world has seen people like the Argentinian Diego Maradona become a god in Naples, Italy. It has Americans becoming deeply invested in the Ruhr Derby, waking up at 5:00am to tune into a game played in Westphalia, Germany. In FC Cincinnati’s first season, our fans took a moment of silence to honor the 16 Iraqi soccer fans who went to a cafe to watch their favorite team, Real Madrid from Spain, who were tragically gunned down in a terrorist attack. It is hard to not feel like a citizen of the world when you become a soccer fan.
Baseball, football, hockey, and basketball might be the dominate sports in the US, but their reach beyond our borders is fairly niche. But soccer is the world’s game. All you need is a ball. No equipment necessary. It is a sport that is truly open to everyone, no barriers ought to exist, it belongs to the world. And for so long, the United States has been left out of this story.
There have been leagues before, immigrant leagues and teams of the turn of the century, the absurdity of the NASL in the 70’s, the weird obsession with indoor soccer in the 80’s. But none of it stuck. After the United States miraculously qualified for the World Cup in 1990, things turned around. And in order to host the World Cup in 1994, the United States needed to put together a league of their own. And MLS was born in 1996 in Columbus, Ohio.
At long last the United States had decided to play the world’s game again. And the league was slow going at the beginning. In fact it technically died at one point in 2001. But slowly and surely MLS plugged along. And sure, there were mistakes along the way. Clocks counting down, penalties after tied league games, absurd penalties that seem awesome at first until you realize they were perfectly designed to break legs. But yet the league grew, slowly and carefully. And MLS teams started winning CONCACAF regional tournaments. And young American stars moved from MLS to Europe where they played in goal for some of the biggest teams in England and set Dutch goal scoring records. The tide was starting to turn, America was starting, ever so slowly, to get good at the world’s game.
And here in Cincinnati, it was a lot of fun to watch. World Cup watch parties, early morning brunch with a Guinness to watch the English Premier League, and paying for MLS live to watch MLS games on the west coast at 11pm. Not to say there weren’t naysayers. There is a certain variety of American sports fan that considers hating soccer to be their favorite sport. Having to be the “soccer guy” at family gatherings or hanging out with friends, you started doubt if soccer could ever catch on. Let me tell you, when you have to convince people that something is actually very popular, you’ve already lost. Having ESPN sportscasters butcher players and team's names is a fun reminder that huge swaths of sports-people couldn’t care less about this sport.
But it was hard to not feel like an outsider to other fans of the sport as well. Having American soccer fans tell you they’re not a fan of the American national team or people who laughed at the idea of going to an MLS match and would rather watch an English team play on TV. Watching other teams in other countries and other cities felt like I was watching other people enjoy the game that I love. I was happy to be a part of it in the small way that I could, but before 2016, it was hard to not feel like an outsider to the sport and to the world here in Cincinnati.
Then along came FC Cincinnati. A club I could call my own. When this team was first announced, Jeff Berding said he wanted this team to go to MLS. And I laughed. Cincinnati doesn’t get nice things. It certainly doesn’t get to feel good about sports. Hearing FCC would be playing in Nippert felt like the little brother trying to be cool and wearing his big brother's clothes, too big and looked a little silly. But then the fans showed up. And packed the house from day one. Carl Lindner and Jeff Berding managed to snag John Harkes as our first manager. Local heroes Austin Berry and Omar Cummings signed on. And all of a sudden FC Cincinnati was being taken seriously. This was a club that had staying power. Playing in a league that originally allowed 5 subs a game, FC Cincinnati grew up from a minor league operation that thought throwing chalk in your face was a good idea, into the bell of the ball. Cincinnati was playing the world’s game. Crystal Palace came to our small corner of the globe, a London team we had only seen on TV, until FC Cincinnati came along. And 35,000 fans showed up. And the world took notice.
And in 2017 we here in Cincinnati learned a little bit more about the beautiful game, and fans were introduced to the U.S. Open Cup. And while I can write all day and night about how magical, and frankly important, that run in the tournament really was for our city, I am just going to link to the video I took at the end of the shootout with Chicago Fire. See if you can find the moment when Cincinnati finally came out on the right side of a sporting moment:
Without the Open Cup we don’t drag MLS and USSF officials into our city to watch a game. We don’t get MLS darling and coaching standout Jesse Marsch to say we have the best atmosphere in the United States. We don’t prove to MLS that we can host MLS teams in Nippert. We don’t win the hearts and minds of casual sports fans in the region. Djiby, Mitch, Jimmy, and so many others become, not just instant household names, but on the list of all-time Cincinnati sports heroes. Playing soccer. In Cincinnati, Ohio. The city the country slept on. The city soccer skipped over. The city that won’t change for anything, was starting to change. Local sports radio hosts that had declared soccer to be anti-American were now defending the sports on the air and in their twitter feed. Cincinnati was a part of the world’s game now.
On Tuesday, the payoff for soccer fans around Cincinnati finally came. An admission ticket to MLS. Cincinnati, and FC Cincinnati, would be joining Major League Soccer. Hello world. Cincinnati will now be on the biggest soccer stage in the United States. It was hard to not be emotional during the festivities. Tears were shed, hugs were shared, and beers were consumed. It was a beautiful moment of a lot of fans of FC Cincinnati, and of soccer in the Queen City. If you didn’t get chills seeing the crowd at Fountain Square, you might be dead.
From now on, our exploits and failures as a team will be known around the world. Soccer fans from London to Paris to Moscow to São Paulo to Sydney to Tokyo to Doha to Cairo to Johannesburg to Rome will have to take notice. FC Cincinnati is now a player in the world’s game, in the global soccer market. This team is going to be in FIFA video games and played by fans all over the world. Our club’s history will be known around the globe. Our city will be recognized by millions of people that would have never heard of us. International tournaments and summer friendlies will continue to put a global focus on our city. That doesn’t happen without soccer and that doesn’t happen without FC Cincinnati. And FC Cincinnati doesn’t happen without the fans.
We built this. 10 other cities had billionaire owners and checks in hand for MLS. But they’re not going to MLS, we are. Carl Lindner’s vision got us here. Jeff Berding’s management got us here. Alan Koch's coaching got us here. Our fans got us here. The Bailey got us here. The soccer moms and dads got us here. The new soccer converts got us here.
Our fans made the difference. Every time you felt like you were the only one singing in your section, you made this happen. Every time you wore a scarf during 90 degree weather, you made this happen. Every time you dragged yourself out to a bar to watch our team play on a baseball field streamed on YouTube, you made this happen. Do you really think MLS wanted the smallest media market of all the expansion candidates? Do you really think MLS thought “Ohio” when they were imagining where their 24th team would be from? We forced our way into this conversation, dominated the conversation, and never gave it back. We all came together to build something so much bigger than ourselves. This was not supposed to be our MLS bid, we stole it. And we are never giving it back.
Cincinnati finally, finally, dragged itself into the future. The Republic of Cincinnati at long last got out of its own way and let something good happen to it. Cincinnati believed in itself. If Cincinnati can build a third major league stadium, anything is possible. Cincinnati is now a global city, on a global stage, with a global audience. And now we’re off to conquer it. Write our own chapter in the world’s game. Put our mark on the collective history and story of the beautiful game.
Pigs are flying. Well done, you built this. You made this happen.