FC Cincinnati has shown a lot of skill in attracting large crowds to USL games at Nippert Stadium this season, but this week’s league meetings at the MLS All-Star Game highlighted many flaws in the team’s organization — or lack of one.
FC Cincinnati has been breaking USL attendance records left and right, putting up the sorts of numbers in league and international friendlies that many MLS owners envy. The team is certainly the talk of the town.
But there’s a difference between a team and an organization, and right now FC Cincinnati isn’t much more than just a team that has little under its control past the players on the pitch. The University of Cincinnati controls Nippert Stadium, the team lacks any sort of training facility, and there’s no organization (like lower-level affiliates or youth academies) in place. If you look at almost every MLS team, you’ll find decent or even world-class training facilities, youth academies, and a soccer-only facility. Now, some of this is easily solvable — FC Cincinnati can retain a USL membership after acquiring MLS membership, and a training center is just a matter of spending enough money — but the stadium issue will be a sticky one for MLS. It’s one thing for NYC FC to play at Yankee Stadium while on the search for a new stadium or the Seattle Sounders to play at an NFL stadium under what’s basically a legacy arrangement; it’s another thing for FC Cincinnati to enter MLS playing in a facility the team does not control. From cincinnati.com:
Understand this: There’s no question Nippert is a great soccer venue. Anyone that’s attended an FC Cincinnati game there this year can attest to that, but that’s not really the debate here. Plenty of suitable soccer venues have been rejected by MLS. The standard for most MLS teams upon entrance to the league (with a couple notable exceptions in Seattle and the Bronx in New York City) and is to have a soccer-specific stadium. Through implementing this standard, MLS has transformed itself from a league that played in cavernous, mostly empty NFL and college football stadiums to a league that packs fans into smaller, more intimate venues that feature European soccer-stadium aesthetics. You can’t argue with the success of that initiative. San Jose’s Avaya Stadium is a great case study in this — an 18,000 seat stadium with a Euro-esque canopy. It’s beautiful and the smaller capacity creates scarcity for tickets in the marketplace.
The caveat to Cincinnati’s situation is that no one can really render a final decision yet. We’ll all need to wait until at least next season when some soccer-minded renovations will have been implemented at stadium. At that point, it’ll be time for MLS officials to provide some feedback (hopefully) and then FC Cincinnati can decide if it needs to develop its own facility. Or maybe they’ll pass on the stadium requirement and continue on as a thriving USL club. And for the record, there’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of experts think the USL can be a very desirable place for clubs — even more so than it is now.
It’s no secret MLS has tied expansion with new stadiums: We’re seeing soccer-only stadiums in Miami, Minnesota and Los Angeles on the way and a new Sacramento stadium in the works. Next season may be the key one as MLS mulls further expansion: More changes are planned to make Nippert Stadium into even more of a soccer facility, and at the end of the day the decision may be made to move forward with MLS there. If FC Cincinnati continues to be a huge draw in 2017, the MLS talk will only intensify.
Image courtesy FC Cincinnati.