Futbol Club Cincinnati are not even a year old but they’re already getting bigger crowds than most MLS teams. What is the secret of their success?
When Bjorn Knudsen talks, the whiskers from his eyebrows and beard poke out of his orange, full-body suit. When Knudsen walks, his father, Chip, holds him by his shoulders, helping him keep balance and walk straight.
“No curb,” Chip says when they cross a street, making sure Bjorn doesn’t stumble.
Bjorn, with a massive bass drum strapped to his chest, begins beating the drum while others are chanting. “How can you see the drum?” someone shouts.
Bjorn, Chip and 150 others are marching just under a mile from Mecklenburg Gardens, a quaint corner bar, toward Nippert Stadium — the home to what’s quickly becoming America’s most fascinating new club.
Just over nine months ago, Futbol Club Cincinnati became the city’s latest attempt at professional soccer. Nine months later, FCC have become the most notable club in the United Soccer League — American soccer’s third tier — and has moved up the list of clubs campaigning to join Major League Soccer, a competition openly looking for new markets.
In their second home match on 19 April, FC Cincinnati had 20,497 fans attend a 3-2 loss to Louisville City FC, the team’s geographic rival. The attendance was a league-record (the previous high was 20,231 set by Sacramento Republic FC), dwarfing USL’s average of 3,369 in 2015. There are no more comparisons to other clubs; rather, there are other clubs comparing themselves to Cincinnati.
A club for the people, created by the businessmen
Perhaps the most impressive feat during FC Cincinnati’s rapid growth has been their ability to truly represent the full spectrum of soccer supporters in the area. While The Bailey, the club’s official supporters section, waves massive blue-and-orange flags and ignites smoke bombs, other sections of Nippert Stadium seat young families and casual fans attending just to witness the city’s latest craze.
Essentially, the club have created a massive community through a grassroots effort, despite having an owner and CEO, Carl H Lindner, who comes from a family of billionaires.
“We have a pride in this town,” says the club president and general manager, Jeff Berding. “We’re a major-league community. People rally around us to support their teams, sometimes with a chip on our shoulders.”
FC Cincinnati want attention, and the leaders of the club have provided fans with meaningful gestures. When the team have played on the road, both Lindner and Berding have gone to local bars in the city and across the Ohio River to Covington, Kentucky, to meet fans.
Combined with strong marketing and a community feel, FC Cincinnati are set to be the city’s long-term professional soccer team. And it’s a welcome addition for fans. In 2015, the Cincinnati Saints played in the National Premier Soccer League, the fourth tier, to an average of 200 fans. While there were passionate supporters, there wasn’t a sustainable strategy for growth.
Chip Knutdsen, who used to go to Saints matches, said the team overcharged for tickets and underproduced on the pitch. The Saints folded and became the Dayton Dynamo, now playing in the NPSL.
FC Cincinnati, however, have decided on a different tactic to the Saints, by offering cheap tickets to college students and children. Fans can also request that 20% of their ticket sale go to local youth soccer organizations.
And in terms of staff, the club went with one of the most recognizable players in US soccer history. “It’s been incredible, actually,” John Harkes says about his tenure as FC Cincinnati’s first coach. “From August, some people said starting from scratch would be impossible.”
Harkes played in England for Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham, Derby and Nottingham Forest, as well as in MLS and for the US national team. His appointment to FC Cincinnati was the club’s first hint at the seriousness the organization was taking in establishing a legitimate team. Harkes is in America’s National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Then came building a roster. Working with assistant coach Ryan Martin and goalkeeper coach Jamie Starr, Harkes and Berding assembled a side with more MLS experience than any club in USL.
Cincinnati native and centre-back Austin Berry was the first signing, becoming the club captain. Berry was the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year. Another familiar name was Omar Cummings, a Jamaica international who played at the University of Cincinnati, as well as the Colorado Rapids and Houston Dynamo in MLS.
Cincinnati play an aggressive, attacking style, opening matches in a 4-3-3 and reshaping throughout the game. With players in interchangeable positions, Cincinnati often pull opponents out of shape. In the first nine matches of the season, nine different players have scored.
“When you’re starting a brand new club, you might have two or three players contributing,” Harkes said. “For us to have so many players scoring goals, creating assists, combination plays … it’s encouraging. We keep finding ourselves making our own future.”
This weekend the weather at Nippert Stadium at kickoff resembled a cloudy November day in Manchester rather than a spring afternoon in the American midwest. FC Cincinnati were attempting to get 25,000 fans in for the match against Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
The team wore a special orange jersey and asked fans to wear the same color for an “orange out,” inspired by the Cincinnati Bengals-Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry. A few Bengals served as honorary captains for the match too.
Once the match started, Cincinnati controlled play. With fluid passing and copious possession, Jimmy McLaughlin put the home side in front after 27 minutes, finishing a rebound off Pittsburgh keeper Mauricio Vargas.
The goal marked the first time Cincinnati had scored first in a match since the loss to Louisville City. Ultimately, McLaughlin’s effort, combined with keeper Mitch Hildebrandt’s composure, gave the team a 1-0 win and their first clean sheet in club history. After the result, FC Cincinnati sit second in the USL Eastern Conference standings through nine matches.
The crowd was 23,375 — a new USL record, surpassing the 19 April attendance. It’s a promising sign for the club ,and with better weather Lindner’s original target would probably have been met.
If the club can make a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup run and host an MLS team, the attendance record will likely be beaten again. And although it hasn’t been confirmed officially, one source close to the team said FC Cincinnati will play an English Premier League side sometime this summer in a friendly.
“I think the whole community has embraced us as a club,” Hildebrandt said. “It’s not a fluke. It’s a very special thing that’s happening here.”