More than a month ago I witnessed the crowd at Nippert Stadium erupt as their goalie, Mitch Hildebrandt, saved a third penalty kick and seal the win against an MLS side. After watching F.C. Cincinnati take down the Chicago Fire, one thing still resonates with me: I have never been more proud as an American soccer fan.
I've played soccer since I could walk. My dad used to joke that he would toss a stuffed mini-soccer ball at me in my crib before bed so that I could practice my headers. I'm not entirely sure he was joking.
It's no surprise that I grew up as a huge soccer fan. Growing up, I longed to watch soccer. I wanted to watch as many games as I could-to learn new formations and moves to try out in the backyard. I memorized players' and managers' names. I knew which stadiums they played, what positions they played and which boots they wore. Like many other young American fans I watched Chelsea and Manchester United duel it out in the Premier League or I tuned in to el Classico twice (if you're lucky sometimes more) each year. My first soccer jersey was a no. 7 David Beckham, Manchester United jersey.
I remember going to a Columbus Crew game and feeling cheated. This wasn't soccer. It didn't feel like the same sport that I watched on T.V. The soccer that MLS was producing quickly grew sour to me. I would go to games to support what felt like a grassroots organization, to be a part of the cause, but I could not commit to watching games on T.V. There wasn’t a community. These fans weren’t passionate about their teams like the fans I had seen on T.V. They didn’t love the game or their team.
The league has felt artificially built, which is strange considering soccer is the most popular youth sport in our country. The league has prioritized financial stability. It has supported franchises with little fan support because of the opportunity to tap into television deals. The league’s favorite strategy to recruit soccer fans is to pull their favorite European players, past their prime, who cannot find playing time on their European clubs. We get their retirees and their hand-me-downs, and it's not surprising that we have created a second-tier league. Better yet, these new fans aren’t the type of fans that build excitement. They seem artificially wrangled as well.
But watching F.C. Cincinnati take down the Chicago Fire in the Lamar Hunt Open Cup was my favorite moment as an American soccer fan. The play on the field wasn't great. It actually looked a lot like a top tier team was playing a relegation-zone team in the premier league. Cincinnati was clearly parking the bus in the first half and could hardly connect more than three passes. Things changed for the home team in the second-half but I would never say that the soccer was good.
F.C. Cincinnati offers something else. I have never seen any American soccer team garner support like the two-year old club has. Despite the fact that it is at best a second division team playing in a collegiate stadium it consistently breaks attendance records. More people come to watch F.C.C. than many MLS teams. I wouldn't say my hometown ranks anywhere near the upper echelon of sports towns, but Cincinnati has rallied behind its soccer team like nothing else this country has seen in this sport.
The most iconic teams in all sports bring together their communities and take on an identity that reflects the personality of its fans. This might be most true in soccer. Many of the European leagues can be distinguished by the style of soccer that the teams within them play. These teams' identities reflect the cultures and fans of their respective communities. These communities, because of their tremendous support for their teams, organically develop players because the kids grow up watching soccer. Best yet, they feel attached to their home team and have a sense of commitment to their community. This is the best and most natural way for the MLS to grow the quality of soccer in our country.
Cincinnati may not have a soccer-specific stadium yet or even have a plan approved. It will not boost television ratings because it is a small market that it is too close to another MLS team in Columbus.
But it has something that many MLS teams envy because all but two clubs in the league don’t have it. It has a community of passionate fans that is growing by the day. F.C.C. is clearly pursuing an expansion position in the MLS and it will feel like defeat to the club if it does not win it. However, as much as the new club wants a spot in the top league in America, MLS needs Cincinnati. They need a team that has that much energy and support and can showcase it on a daily basis. A club that can truly boast home-field advantage in a league that is so desperately deprived of it. The MLS needs to demonstrate to the rest of the league and the rest of the world that it is serious in its desire to build soccer communities throughout this country and choose Cincinnati as an expansion location. It is time for soccer in this country to take the next step forward, to not settle for mediocrity on the field and off it and to put teams on notice that their half-hearted attempt to build a club-following will not suffice anymore.
Image: By Hayden Schiff from Cincinnati, USA - The Bailey, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53999650