Tonight we get to witness to the next chapter in a thrilling story we never thought would be written. FC Cincinnati’s incredible run in the U.S. Open Cup that has seen them rise above their station and defeat in-state teams, rivals, in-state rivals, and even the best American soccer team right now. This competition, which I guarantee “old-school” local sports pundits didn’t know about two years ago, is suddenly the best sports story this city has had in quite some time. We have even seen Cincinnati sports legends crafted before our eyes with Djiby and Mitch Hildebrandt putting in internationally recognized effort on the field. Soak it in; this is what it is like to root for a team that is successful. This is what it is like to support a team that feels good to support. Enjoy this moment; it might be awhile before our city’s other teams can deliver these moments.
So what are the stakes tonight? Yes, a place in the semi-finals against yet another MLS team. And yes, another opportunity to make the world take notice of this club we have built. But for a lot of people, the biggest prize will be U.S. Soccer Division Two bragging rights
The team we face is Miami FC, from the NASL (North American Soccer League). How about we get this out of the way: they are a better team than us. Neat, we have already beaten three teams in this tournament that are better than us on paper (enjoy the compliment louisville, your league standing is literally the only thing you can hold over us, for now). Miami FC has talent they have managed to pluck away from MLS, which is rare, and have manhandled their league with it. Speaking of their league . . .
The NASL is not the USL, but they co-own the USSF Division 2 with FCC’s own USL. This, you should understand, is weird. In years past, NASL was the division two league, and USL was the division three league. That changed this past off-season when USSF decided to award both leagues, on a provisional basis, second division status. This did not seem very likely for the NASL a few months ago, and is something of a miracle.
It is a miracle because the NASL nearly died last year. In fact, it is possible that it Jon Snow-ed itself and came back after getting rid of some long-standing demons. In this past off season, two teams defected to the USL, Tampa and Ottawa while Indianapolis and North Carolina FC looked to be on the verge of joining them. Two teams died off, Ft. Lauderdale and Rayo OKC. One team, Minnesota United, completed their planned move to MLS. And the storied club New York Cosmos nearly folded. And yet, here we are, with an NASL intact. In fact they added a team in that same offseason, the San Francisco Deltas. Believe it or not, with all of those changes, they are adding two more teams in the next year or so with San Diego and Orange County joining the party.
During all of this chaos, Miami FC has been the great hope of the NASL. Traditionally, that role belonged to the New York Cosmos, but with their, let’s call it a coma, Miami FC has looked the stable, successful, and rich club to guide the league. Let me know if this sounds familiar: It is a club that plays in a college football stadium, owned by a billionaire and supporter of the same university, who against the odds has found an audience as a lower division soccer team in pro-sports market. Ringing any bells here?
Miami FC represents the hopes and dreams of not just Miami FC fans, but all of the NASL right now. A league that was just recently left for dead is now on the verge of winning the U.S. Open Cup. Their cup run has ramifications outside of the tournament itself, too. If you know your soccer history, you know that the NASL formed as a splinter group from what is now the USL. They wanted the teams to have more control of their operations, run things as they see fit. A model you will not find in the USL or MLS. This has created a number of professional teams that have academies training young American talent that we can all hope one day fills the ranks of the U.S. national team. It has also created an environment that has been unforgiving to faltering clubs. Mismanagement, and I will let others dive into what exactly that means, has prevented the NASL from thriving. But despite all of those problems, the embattled league is ready to make their mark in American soccer history. And this should be celebrated by American soccer fans, but often is not. These teams were able to survive and continue to serve their communities.
Which is what makes a part of the story so frustrating. Miami FC just so happens to be located in a city that is due to receive a brand-new MLS team owned by David Beckham. Yes, that Miami MLS team you have heard about is not a part of these current expansion plans, nor is it the Miami FC that is hosting FCC tonight. Beckham’s Miami has already been awarded and was planned to join MLS alongside LAFC. But Beckham’s lack of motivation and Miami’s politics prevented that from happening. So now that a successful NASL club, which draws thousands of people a game, is up and running, MLS looks ready to drop the inevitable guillotine on them in the form of a new MLS franchise. Rather than working with a team that already exists, MLS is going to create something from nothing. Make no mistake, Miami is a historically fickle sports market and Miami FC fans can tell you that it was rough for the club to start. But now they are a lower division success story, something that should be celebrated by American soccer fans, and their future looks uncertain. Miami FC could be in trouble, not because of anything on the field, but because of soccer politics off of it.
Miami FC and FC Cincinnati meeting in this cub matchup is everything that is right and everything that is wrong with American Soccer right now. Both are clubs that built themselves from the ground up to be ambitious; they are teams that want to accomplish everything that they can accomplish, clubs that have succeeded in cities nobody thought they could, teams playing better than experts thought they could, and yet in both cases, their future is in the hands of a few executives in a league in which they do not participate. MLS can easily take Phoenix and Raleigh in this next round of expansion, add Beckham’s Miami team, and MLS fans could celebrate it. With that same announcement, MLS would extinguish fan enthusiasm in Cincinnati and likely extinguish Miami FC altogether. Both of these teams have proven capable of winning the U.S. Open Cup this year, but both cannot confidently state where they will be in five years. That fact is everything that is wrong with American soccer. One step further, it is everything wrong with American sports in general.
Both of these clubs represent the best of American soccer right now. Regardless of the winner tonight, each team’s fan base needs to be pulling for the other one to succeed going forward in this tournament. Hell, everyone who is a fan of a team outside of the MLS bubble ought to be rooting for these teams. They are proof that soccer can take root in the culture of a historically conservative city. They are proof that second division teams and leagues that want to be more than minor league baseball farms can achieve great things. They are proof that fan support and passion can propel a team to an unlikely victory. It is not often you find two Cinderellas at the same ball, but when you do, you have to assume there is some magic afoot. That is what makes the U.S. Open Cup so much fun. That is what makes sports so much fun. These teams, these cities, these fan bases, deserve all of the praises they are getting going into this match. They have earned it. Earned it. Something you do not often get to say when writing about American soccer clubs.
So what do you say Miami, shall we dance?