Fans cheer on the FC Cincinnati team as they play English Premier League team Crystal Palace in a friendly match Saturday, July 16 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. NICK GRAHAM

Eyeing expansion, FC Cincinnati eager to host MLS Commissioner

In just over two weeks, Cincinnati will have a chance to showcase itself as a potential Major League Soccer market.

The Queen City demonstrated through an impressive turnout during FC Cincinnati’s debut season that it can support professional soccer to the highest levels, but on Nov. 29, club representatives, city officials and fans will have a chance to make a live pitch to MLS commissioner Don Garber.

Garber is scheduled to tour the city, check out the setup at Nippert Stadium and participate in a town hall meeting with the general public. Fans will have a chance to ask questions and hear directly from Garber at that meeting, scheduled for 4-5:30 p.m. at Woodward Theater. Doors will open at 3 p.m., but the event also will be streamed live at nearby MOTR Pub, Rhinehaus and Mr. Pitiful’s to accommodate the expected overflow crowds.

“It’s an honor for him to come here,” FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said. “He doesn’t visit every city that wants to be considered for expansion, so we are pleased we will have the opportunity to show why this is such a great soccer town and a market that could support Major League Soccer.

“The town hall meeting will be a big part of that and a chance for the local community that has supported us so well through our first year to come out and be a part of the process in a way.”

MLS already has four of eight planned expansion markets in the works, including the addition of Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC in 2017, Los Angeles FC in 2018 and Miami expected to follow, pending a finalized stadium plan, by 2019. Sacramento Republic and St. Louis FC – two USL clubs also looking to move up – appear to be in the pipeline for probable expansion, but the blog BlueTestament.com this week predicted Cincinnati could be next in line to slide in even before Miami.

An MLS official said its expansion committee met earlier this week and will meet again in December, but had no updates beyond that.

FC Cincinnati worked its way into the conversation with its performance on the field and at the gates during its inaugural season in the USL, as the club set multiple league attendance records and made the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s third-place team. Its average regular-season attendance of 17,296 fans was better than five MLS franchises and ranked 16th among all levels in the U.S. and Canada.

That doesn’t include the 30,187 fans that attended the club’s first-round playoff game or the crowd of 35,061 that attended a friendly against English Premier League side Crystal Palace, surpassing every attendance figure in the MLS that weekend.

“We certainly are proud of what we achieved in Year 1,” Berding said. “We proved Cincinnati is a soccer market, but the key is to sustain what we’ve built and to continue to grow to become the best we can be.”

Representatives from FC Cincinnati have been to MLS headquarters in New York, but Garber’s visit to the Queen City will enable him a chance to tour the city and get an up-close look at the club’s operations.

According to Berding, Garber will meet with FC Cincinnati majority owner Carl Lindner III and other club business leaders and will tour the urban core of the city along with civic leaders, such as Mayor John Cranley, prior to the town hall meeting. Garber should arrive at Lunken Airport around 9 a.m.

Berding expects to see the clubs orange and blue colors spread throughout the city to help show how widespread the support is for FC Cincinnati.

“Certainly, we are working with the city to show Don Garber that Cincinnati is an attractive city for major-league soccer,” Berding said. “We have had several business working with us to display the FCC brand or colors in some fashion on that day and the days leading up to the visit.”

The club has been trying to spread the word about Garber’s visit through its “Cover the City” campaign, which it launched a few weeks ago. As part of the campaign, FC Cincinnati provides a save-the-date magnet and encourages fans to place them in unique spots around the city and post photos on social media with #MLS2CINCY.

Supporter group Die Innenstadt president Ryan Lammi said interest seems to be picking up as Nov. 29 gets closer, but he hopes fans take the opportunity to help present Cincinnati in its best light.

“I don’t think our first-year attendance is enough to rest on to make it into MLS,” Lammi said. “We still have to prove ourselves on the field and off, and part of that is showing excitement for the team even when the team isn’t playing. This will be an important step to joining MLS, if that ends up being the case.”

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