Nippert Stadium - From the end - Home MLS opener

FC Cincinnati president Jeff Berding was abruptly interrupted as he began to answer a reporter’s question a little more than halfway through a Wednesday morning outdoor media availability at Nippert Stadium.

It wasn’t a pushy journalist, but a top-of-the-hour tolling of bells near the University of Cincinnati’s on-campus arena, loud enough to impose a minute-long wait on the proceedings — and a timely metaphor for FCC’s curtain call at their birthplace and home for the past five years.

Cincy hosted Sporting KC on Wednesday for their final match at Nippert, going down to a 1-0 defeat. Next season they’ll move into their new West End Stadium, a gorgeous soccer-centric venue some two miles to the south, closer to the heart of the city and seemingly a strong contender to become one of the most appealing grounds in MLS from the moment it debuts.

Bitter disappointment swirls around FCC and their fans as COVID-19 risk mitigation forces them to bid farewell to Nippert behind closed doors. The intimate college football venue, which hosted its first event way back in 1901, proved a perfect place to hatch the club and spark the city’s soccer renaissance.

Technically speaking, the Orange-and-Blue climbed not one but two levels of the North American soccer pyramid at Nippert, first taking the pitch in USL in 2016 when that league occupied the third tier, then topping out as USL Championship regular-season winners in 2018 before joining MLS last year.

The stadium’s atmosphere and dimensions, paired with savvy marketing by the club to pack the house routinely and showcase the impressive supporter culture of “the Bailey” section, made FCC a head-turning success right out of the gate. They drew particular attention for the spirited crowds cheering their Cinderella run to the semifinals of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup.

“Even without fans, I think it looks nice, I think it's a good stadium to play at for the players. It's got something special,” head coach Jaap Stam, who thanks to the pandemic has never had the chance to witness first-hand a loud night at Nippert, said on Monday. “Changes are being made. You want to grow the club as well. We’re building a new ground, as everybody knows. So hopefully we can eventually make history over there.”

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A sobering season of expansion struggle left a bruise or two, and Cincy are still looking up at the rest of the Eastern Conference in the standings as they close out 2020. Stam is their fourth coach in two years. The roster remains a work in progress. And their 11 goals scored in 21 matches ranks worst in the league by some margin, a product of a defense-first approach to stop the bleeding and build a sturdier foundation.

It’s time for a new chapter, and the move to the West End provides a timely tentpole in that regard.

Even as GM Gerard Nijkamp preaches patience on the ongoing rebuild, FCC’s leaders emphasize their desire and capacity to contend for honors from the opening day of their new place. They also believe that modern amenities and creature comforts like a full roof, steeply-raked stands with fans in close proximity to the pitch and a grass surface instead of Nippert’s artificial turf can amplify the cauldron they’ve been tending over at UC.

“We're proud of our pricing, we're proud of the homework and research that went into the stadium. You look behind me at the incredible visual of the Bailey, and the unwavering support of our best fans – our supporters of FC Cincinnati will have the ultimate home in West End Stadium,” Senior VP of Sales & Ticketing Jeff Smith said on Wednesday, noting that FCC’s 4,500 club seats have already sold out.

“We nearly doubled the size of the Bailey, with unbelievable amenities in the stadium, a chair-back seat for everyone. All the seats are under cover, unprecedented food and beverage experiences, and the ultimate proximity of our seats to the action. We believe that West End stadium will provide the ultimate fan experience in Cincinnati. So, a fun day today as we celebrate the past. We look at our history, but we continue to move forward and transition into 2021.”

Cincy and their fans put in incredible work to come this far this fast. Now the future looms, a graduation of sorts. It’s the job of Stam and Nijkamp to have them ready to go full-bore from the jump in the West End, with a stronger squad and a more proactive playing style. The clock is ticking down to next spring.