‘Future of soccer in Cincinnati’ includes MLS franchise

FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding said from the beginning ownership’s goal for the club was to bring soccer to the highest level in the Queen City.

It appears that mission is complete, and the second-division United Soccer League is no longer the highest level Cincinnati can support.

Major League Soccer is expected to tap Cincinnati as its 26th team during a special event scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Cincinnati.

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The club sent out a media alert Thursday afternoon, indicating the event is to make a “significant announcement about the future of soccer in Cincinnati,” which is similar to the language used when MLS alerted media of a “major soccer announcement” in Nashville, one day before selecting Music City as an expansion destination five months ago. MLS commissioner Don Garber will be in attendance, along with FC Cincinnati majority owner and CEO Carl Lindner III, Berding and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.

Club officials could not be reached for further comment, and MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Cincinnati was one of three finalists – joined by Detroit and Sacramento – for an expansion franchise that originally was expected to be named in December along with Nashville. The decision on the second team was delayed because the bids were all incomplete; however, Cincinnati removed all apparent obstacles when it got necessary approvals to move forward with a soccer specific stadium in the West End with City Council’s approval on April 16 and the club signed a Community Benefits Agreement with a group representing the West End last week.

“It’s exciting,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said last month when asked about the possibility of an expansion bid being awarded to the city. “I came from an MLS club. I came here to this club to be back in MLS. It’s part of why I’m here to lead this club, to ultimately get into MLS, but we don’t control that. We have to continue to focus on where we are now, and if that decision is made, we’ll be ready.”

FCC, which will rebrand as Fussball Club Cincinnati in MLS as a tribute to the city’s German heritage, could potentially join the league’s Eastern Division as early as 2019, using its current setup at Nippert Stadium as a temporary home.

The club already widened the pitch to MLS and FIFA standards last year and brought in digital sponsorship boards that are set up on the eastern sideline during games as another way to prepare for MLS play.

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“As we’ve grown, there are so many things people see that show the growth, but there are so many things behind the scenes we are working on behind the scenes to build an amazing club,” Koch said in April. “Right now, where we are as a USL club, we’re building something very special. If a decision is made, we’re ready because we have all these processes in place to continue to grow and to be ready for the different challenges that present themselves. There is nothing that could blindside us in this process.”

Two more expansion clubs are expected to be selected at a later time, as MLS seeks to grow to 28 teams, but if admitted into the league Tuesday, FC Cincinnati can breathe a sigh of relief after a hectic 17 months trying to win a bid over 11 other markets.

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The competition began with a scramble to submit a formal application for consideration by the Jan. 31, 2017, deadline just six weeks after MLS set its expansion process guidelines. FCC leadership then worked behind the scenes for months trying to lock down a soccer-specific stadium plan, which finally made some strides in November as Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners voted to provide $52 million in infrastructure around the privately financed $250 million facility that was then expected to be built in Oakley.

Plans have shifted and swayed since then, and MLS deadlines came and went.

Except for the stadium plans, FC Cincinnati already had “checked all the boxes,” as CEO Carl Lindner III said in November. The club impressed on the field last year with a U.S. Open Cup semifinal run that included wins over MLS sides Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire in front of a packed Nippert Stadium, and attendance figures continued to climb to an average of 21,199 fans for league games.

The club finally completed its bid with a West End stadium deal proposed by city councilmen P.G. Sittenfeld and David Mann on April 7 and brought into action April 16, hours after a Community Benefits Agreement was drafted to secure the necessary five of nine votes by the Council.

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