Recently, Major League Soccer announced that FC Cincinnati had been selected as its latest expansion side. The current darling of the U.S. soccer scene will begin MLS play in the 2019 season following inception in 2016.
Cincinnati beat out Sacramento Republic FC, Nashville SC, and Detroit City FC to become MLS’s 26th club. For the league, the addition of Cincinnati seemed obvious in light of the club’s explosive growth in two United Soccer League (USL) seasons.
Instantly, MLS adds one of America’s most exciting soccer scenes in a club already averaging 24,000+ fans per home match.
Despite becoming a club only three years ago, it has earned nothing but glowing praise during its short existence. Forbes’ Patrick Rishe applauded Cincinnati’s “can-do” spirit, a piece at FourFourTwo documented the club’s tremendous support and discussed MLS expansion possibility — after six matches — and The Guardian highlighted the club’s ability to quickly gather a large fan-base across the metro area thanks to savvy ticket pricing, especially for young adults, as well as a successful bar blitz campaign.
You better believe that a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup last season, including a win over MLS side Chicago Fire and a 30,000+ attendance for the clash against New York Red Bulls, raised the hype level even further.
Walking in Seattle’s footsteps
Seemingly, FC Cincinnati is following a marketing strategy employed by the Seattle Sounders FC in 2008 to quickly spread their influence. Cincinnati has combined grassroots engagement with smart and targeted marketing following the blueprint laid out a decade ago by Seattle in how to quickly build a football community among the city’s young adults.
A decade in, the Seattle plan seems to be a sort of yardstick for ambitious U.S. soccer cities. So far, Cincinnati has the markings of the Seattle fan plan, even echoing something similar to Seattle’s March to the Match.
Cincinnati is by far the smallest media market of the expansion finalist cities, though in this case MLS is seemingly downplaying market size in favour of other metrics (bluntly, the league is favouring butts in seats over those on the couch). It’s a gamble built on the assumption that Cincinnati’s booming supporter culture will continue to grow and remain fervent.
Nevertheless, there’s no reason to doubt Cincy’s ability to keep the show going. A recent profile in Sports Illustrated raises the possibility that its growing appeal among young adults buoyed by an urban fabric, as well as a rejuvenated downtown area — not soccer. To this end, FC Cincinnati looks to be the hip new thing for an impressionable young crowd.
One wild card could be the stadium issue. As part of the expansion deal, the city promises to build a new soccer-specific stadium. Funding for the venue appears to be a joint public-private deal (mostly private), but given Cincinnati’s history of atrocious stadium deals, eyebrows are already raised very high.
The new home plans to hold 20,000 supporters, a number much smaller than the 30,000+ the club is currently capable of attracting for big matches. In this sense, Cincinnati seems to be following Sporting Kansas City’s strategy of leveraging “under capacity” to increase ticket scarcity, thus increasing ticket desirability.
Where does this leave the USL?
Finally, the club’s successful expansion bid has raised awareness of the big mess piling in MLS’s backyard: the fate of the Columbus Crew SC, one of league’s original clubs. One concern raised is it is disingenuous for MLS to grant Cincinnati a team when, just two hours up the road, Columbus will lose theirs to Austin, Texas. In a perfect world, MLS saves Columbus and welcomes Cincy.
Regardless, adding Cincinnati mostly looks like a smart move for MLS, despite the hurdles inherent to any expansion side.
But qhat is good for the top flight at times comes at the expense of the second tier. FC Cincinnati moving up the pyramid from USL to MLS only underscores the zero-sum game between the two levels of U.S. domestic soccer. As MLS closes out its expansion era (28 clubs is the final number cited by MLS commissioner Don Garber), there’s been a one-way flow of benefits to the top flight.
This dynamic raises a question about the presence of the USL: is it ultimately a “feeder league” supplying a training outlet for future MLS sides? And once MLS reaches its 28 club capacity, what becomes the respective goals of the remaining USL sides; who will look to invest in them? What becomes the league’s final endgame?
All this is outside of the U.S. domestic soccer elephant in the room: promotion/relegation. Citing another cliche, this issue is the can of worms in U.S. soccer, devolving into the type of vicious social media campaigns of attrition and ideological blindness that is only topped by U.S. national politics. It’s so bad that “pro/rel truthers” are a thing. Without fully endorsing pro/rel, I want to carefully suggest that such a system is perhaps one of the only valid answers to the questions raised, especially from a USL perspective.
After all, the USL will be staring into a massive Cincy-shaped black hole next season. I know second divisions across the soccer world are accustomed to losing their best 2-3 sides every season. However, this loss could be offset by the gain of newly relegated sides from the top flight. Each season, this cycle of loss-and-gain replenishes second division soccer in countries like England, Germany, Italy, Mexico and Argentina.
The USL does not have the luxury of a loss-and-gain cycle. The league is constantly searching for relevance given the constant stream of clubs who either (mostly) fail financially or move to the MLS. The instability means establishing rivalries, traditions, and expectations has proven nearly impossible.
The loss of FC Cincinnati only emphasizes this dynamic in which MLS feeds off success in the USL. From the beginning, MLS expansion seems to have been Cincy’s plan lending evidence to why the suits in charge spearheaded such an ambitious project. That is, FC Cincinnati has succeeded precisely because MLS membership has been the goal all along.
Meanwhile, USL is privileged with another half season of the Cincy show before a new soccer project will fill the Nippert-sized hole punctured in the U.S. second division.