The Beautiful Game is Growing in America: FC Cincinnati is Proof

​The beautiful game has seen unbelievable growth in America over the past two decades but the growth has sped up exponentially as of late. New clubs are being created, there will even be a new league introduced in the future as USL will introduce “USL D3” in the 2019 season. USL spent lots of years and lots of money to earn second division status in America alongside the NASL which was granted to them before the 2017 season. After all that hard work they will introduce “USL D3” and control both the second and third tier of American soccer. While no promotion/relegation system has been implemented in U.S. soccer, the USL has already welcomed some fine clubs to the league, some of which are eyeing first tier play through MLS expansion. FC Cincinnati may be the most intriguing of the group. The club began play in 2016 and have shocked Americans around the country with how rapid their rise to the top has been. The club finished third place in their conference in their inaugural season and are currently in a playoff position for the 2017 season. In 2016, the club was managed by John Harkes. This is not the first time Harkes decided to help grow a project in America. After captaining the USMNT in the 1996 World Cup, Harkes left the Premier League to help a new league in America grow called “MLS”. At the time, Harkes had no idea how much the league would grow but he came over regardless in hopes of growing a league his future kids could one day play in. He spent three season at D.C. United where he won two titles before leaving the club and dwindling out his playing days with a couple other MLS clubs before hanging up his boots. He quite literally created a league for his kids to play in as you can now find his son Ian Harkes roaming the midfield at RFK stadium, the home of D.C. United. FC Cincinnati was well aware of John’s success in growing MLS when they brought him to manage the club. In fact, one major reason he was brought in was because he was committed to playing an attacking style of play which would attract fans right from the beginning. The former USMNT captain was managing a club for the very first time but you would think he had a decade of experience. John Harkes led his team to third place in the club’s inaugural season. However, the success story didn’t end there.

Since FC Cincinnati’s inaugural season in 2016, the club has exceeded expectations in every way imaginable. Averaging over 17,000 people per game in USL (which at the time was the third division in U.S. soccer) is incredible, especially for a team that started from scratch and was playing their very first season together. In one game, the great fans in Cincinnati managed to fill over 24,000 seats. The lowest home attendance for FC Cincinnati in the league was 11,278 people. However, the next highest average attendance in the league was 11,514 people. So essentially, Cincinnati’s lowest-attended match was on par with the second-best supporters in the league on an average day. These are the club’s average attendance figures in the regular season. However, you will probably not be surprised to hear that the attendance at the club’s first ever playoff game exceeded 30,000 fans. While 30,000 may be impressive, it is not the highest attendance the club has ever had. When Premier League club Crystal Palace FC came in to town, 35,000+ supported their new club in the stands of Nippert Stadium. The supporters continued to support FC Cincinnati, breaking attendance records in 2017 under newly promoted manager Alan Koch. In their first home match of the 2017 season they broke the record for highest attendance at a USL home opener. The supporters didn’t stop there. They went on to break the record for attendance at a fourth-round U.S. Open Cup game versus Columbus Crew where FCC upset the local MLS club with a 1-0 win in front of 30,000+ fans. The club advanced to the Round of 16 where they welcomed Bastian Schweinsteiger and the Chicago Fire in front of over 32,000 fans which was the largest attendance in competition history outside of the 2011 final and was also broadcast live on ESPN. Cincinnati beat the current MLS leaders in what became an instant classic. Mitch Hildebrandt led the team with 120 scoreless minutes and saved three penalties in the penalty shootout. Jimmy McLaughlin, who was also a stand out performer in the win, followed up the Bastian Schweinsteiger penalty kick with a terrific penalty kick of his own which he tucked comfortably in the bottom left corner.

Breaking The Lines journalist Jay Stucchio was fortunate enough to speak to Jimmy McLaughlin where they talked about the game vs. Chicago, U.S. Open Cup ambitions, as well as the future of FC Cincinnati.

BTL: Were you intimidated by a player like Bastian Schweinsteiger or did you treat him just like you would any other player?

Jimmy McLaughlin: Of course, Bastian Schweinsteiger is a legend and we all know how he is a world class player. But once you are on the field you treat every player like everyone else and don’t even notice who you are playing against.

BTL: How big is the gap in terms of ability between USL clubs and MLS clubs if there is any at all?

McLaughlin: There is a gap but the gap is much smaller than people think. The top teams in USL can beat an MLS team on any given day and our team has proven that this year. We have an MLS quality squad and believe we can play with anyone. Each year the gap is getting smaller and smaller as soccer in general in America is improving each year.

BTL: First off, you have now won your last two games vs MLS opposition. Do you believe this club belongs in MLS yet?

McLaughlin: I believe our club deserves to be in MLS. FC Cincinnati checks all the boxes and I think it is just a matter of time. People are noticing what is happening here.

BTL: You get to play in front of some of the best supporters in the country despite not playing in the country’s top division, what is that like?

McLaughlin: The support is unreal, like nothing else. They drive us on each game and keep us going when times get tough. It is something very special.

BTL: Lastly, do you believe you can go all the way in the US Open Cup?

McLaughlin: We absolutely believe we can win the Open Cup! We have already shocked the country twice by beating two very strong MLS teams and believe we can beat anyone on any given day. We will give it our all and leave it all out there and see what happens. We are excited for the opportunity and enjoying the ride. There is no pressure on us at all.

Jimmy McLaughlin is spot on when saying the club checks all the boxes. The club is consistently bringing more supporters to games than other MLS clubs. This could help them in terms of MLS expansion. MLS commissioner Don Garber is constantly searching for good markets to add MLS clubs and Cincinnati is certainly an ideal location. Bringing the club into MLS could only help the side as the ambition continues to grow at that club. Cincinnati has knocked out the last two MLS opponents they’ve faced which proves they’re capable of competing with teams at the top flight. The club will travel to Miami for their quarter final match on Wednesday, July 12th where they will face the only other non-MLS club left in the competition and hope to advance to the semifinal. The U.S. Open Cup will be the first of many memories this Cincinnati side hopes to give American supporters.

Writer: @JayStucchio

Picture: Alex Vehr