CINCINNATI – No longer just a pro baseball or football city. Not just a hotbed for college hoops. Thousands of soccer fans held a pep rally to celebrate Cincinnati’s surprising ascendance on the pitch.
It’s now a soccer city, too.
Major League Soccer added Cincinnati in its latest round of expansion Tuesday, rewarding a city that set attendance records during three seasons of United Soccer League play and has a stadium deal in place.
“You have shocked the world,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told hundreds of blue-and-orange clad fans at a brewery north of downtown.
The announcement brings MLS to 26 teams, two shy of its ultimate goal. It began as a 10-team league in 1996.
Cincinnati will join next year, continuing to play at the University of Cincinnati’s football stadium while a 21,000-seat soccer stadium is built in the city’s low-income West End neighborhood. The stadium is expected to be ready for the 2021 season.
MLS added the Los Angeles Football Club this season, bringing the league to 23 teams. Miami and Nashville also are getting expansion franchises. The league held off awarding the 26th spot for six months because of ownership and stadium issues with the other three candidates: Sacramento, Detroit and Cincinnati.
Cincinnati jumped ahead of the other two when its city council approved $34.8 million for infrastructure as part of a stadium deal last month, the final piece of Cincinnati’s proposal.
The league hasn’t decided which conference FC Cincinnati will join next year.
The city was a long shot for MLS consideration three years ago when Jeff Berding – who led the campaign to build Paul Brown Stadium for the Bengals and Great American Ball Park for the Reds – formed the professional soccer team.
The club has ties with the city’s other professional teams. In addition to Berding’s association with the Bengals – the team hired him after the stadium was built – the Lindner family became part of FC Cincinnati’s ownership. The late Carl Lindner Jr. owned the Reds for six years after Marge Schott was forced out in 1999.
“This is a heady moment for a humble kid from the west side of Cincinnati,” Berding said, calling it “the next big thing for Cincinnati.”
FC Cincinnati had its inaugural season in 2016 and far surpassed attendance expectations. Last year, the team averaged more than 21,000 fans at Nippert Stadium, which seats 40,000, and gained attention by going 5-1 in the U.S. Open Cup, beating two MLS teams.
FC Cincinnati drew 26,495 fans for a home game against Louisville City FC last Saturday and is averaging more than 23,000 fans this season.
The fan base provided the impetus to push for an MLS franchise. One of the biggest obstacles was getting money for a soccer stadium in a city stung by cost overruns for Paul Brown Stadium, which opened for the 2000 season. In the backlash, the Hamilton County commissioner who led the stadium initiative was voted out of office.
FC Cincinnati considered another location in the city and one in northern Kentucky before getting a divided Cincinnati City Council to approve the infrastructure money last month, over the objection of activists in the predominantly black West End community who fear that residents will be displaced.
Mayor John Cranley proclaimed it orange and blue day in Cincinnati.
“There was a time when people didn’t think we were hip or cool enough … or big enough to support three major league teams in one city,” Cranley said. “I’m still a Reds and Bengals fan, aren’t you?”
FC Cincinnati has been one of the city’s recent sports successes.
Xavier and Cincinnati were ranked in the top 10 in college basketball last season. The Reds are in the third year of a major rebuild and got off to their worst start since the Great Depression this season. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of futility in NFL history.
Bengals running back Giovani Bernard attended the pep rally Tuesday wearing an FC Cincinnati shirt. The team issued a statement congratulating the soccer team.
“Procuring a new franchise presents real challenges, and FC Cincinnati has handled those challenges with the energy and perseverance needed for success,” the Bengals said.