Cincy-fan

Lunken Airport seems an unlikely addition to the annals of MLS history.

Yet the small, century-old airfield a few miles east of downtown Cincinnati has suddenly become a regular gathering place for FC Cincinnati fans, thanks to their team’s first-ever qualification for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

Lunken is where FCC catch their chartered flights to away games, and after the Knifey Lions thumped D.C. United at Audi Field on Decision Day to officially clinch a postseason berth, many of their loyal faithful flocked there to welcome the team home.

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A return from the abyss

The ritual repeated after last weekend’s 2-1 upset win over the New York Red Bulls, showing enough turnout and spirit to prompt an invitation to see the players and staff off as they jetted to Philadelphia Wednesday afternoon ahead of Thursday night’s Eastern Conference Semifinal vs. the Union (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

With packed watch parties all over town (including a sold-out event at TQL Stadium) and upwards of 200 fans traveling to these away playoff games on short notice, FC Cincy fever has taken hold of the Queen City yet again. Though some contend that it never really left, even after they spent their first three seasons in the top flight at the bottom of the table.

“We've been down for so long that it's almost felt like a release with all this stuff,” Matt Broo, president of The Pride, one of FCC’s largest supporters’ groups, told MLSsoccer.com this week. “So you see the people at the airport and the watch parties and it's just this – I mean, I'm not bragging on us, it's pretty well-known, this was always a pretty passionate fan base from the jump back in the USL era.

“It's incredible how this fan base really stuck with this team during the rebuild and during the bad, the lean years, and now I think that's being rewarded in some sense. That everyone feels like we suffered through this together, we're going to celebrate this together. So it's really cool to see, honestly.”

FCC supporters point out that the airport crowds don’t even include those who attended the away games in person. Somewhere around 200 Cincy fans made the trip to Red Bull Arena for Saturday’s win, and about the same number, possibly more, will journey to Chester, Pennsylvania – a 575-mile, 10-hour drive over land – for Thursday.

“Well, my group is exhausted,” said Pat Benson of the Queen City Mafia supporters group. “Our motto is ‘family, city, club,’ and we took that to heart. We took a road trip all the way up to New York together in a 15-passenger van, so we got back Sunday night at 3:30 in the morning, and lord, were we exhausted.

“We couldn't ask for anything else. The transformation that our club’s undergone, from top down, Chris Albright, Pat Noonan, our team is completely different than last year. It feels like we have a fighting chance. We couldn't be any happier.”

Benson and several of his comrades are packing up a van again for Philly, departing from Cincinnati around midnight Wednesday night. They’re hopeful they will have to scramble together similar plans to New York City or Montréal next week for the East final.

"Crossing generations"

But this wave of enthusiasm seems to run deeper than just the hardcores.

“The other thing that’s fun about it is, it's not just SG members either,” said Broo. “The word’s getting out to people that have no affiliation with the SGs, people that just are excited, and they're finding out too. It's neat to see people that you don't see in the Bailey [supporters section] or at the supporters' group watch parties. They're still coming out and they're bringing their kids, and it's a family affair, too. So it's not just limited to like the rowdy, typical soccer types. It’s crossing generations and it’s crossing all segments of the fan base.”

One could argue that lovers of the Orange-and-Blue led a charmed life out of the gates. The first few years of FCC’s existence were generally euphoric, as they draw huge crowds upon launch in the USL Championship in 2016. They then made a stirring underdog run to the US Open Cup semifinals in their second season, knocking off MLS sides Chicago Fire and their immediate cross-state rivals the Columbus Crew along the way, and exited the second division as regular-season champions in 2018 ahead of their MLS expansion bow a year later.

That’s when things got bleak. Very bleak. A litany of losses, many of them ugly, accompanied by constant turnover in the form of four head coaches and multiple director-level changes, tested fans’ devotion, even as they moved from college football venue Nippert Stadium into a gorgeous new home in TQL. But the drastic 2022 turnaround under Albright, the new general manager, and head coach Noonan has Cincy supporters flying again.

“People are really excited. I mean, it's the first time since we've been in MLS that this kind of energy is back,” said Zach Blandford, who holds leadership positions on the boards of both The Pride and Cincy’s chapter of the American Outlaws. “It's not the first time in the history of the club because with the US Open Cup run, especially beating Columbus and then beating Chicago and penalty kicks on national TV, that was crazy. This is getting close to that.

“To see it really kind of playing out now down the stretch in this playoff run, with a team that everybody's really excited about, it's a welcome change from the last few years.”

Simply moving from woeful to respectable would have been a victory for frustrated Cincy backers. The appeal of Noonan’s aggressive, distinctly up-tempo playing identity – spearheaded by the prolific attacking trident of Lucho Acosta, Brandon Vazquez and Brenner – has combined with the particular character of this roster to charm the local market well above and beyond that.

“Being a supporter since just about day one, that run in the US Open Cup was very, very fun and it's nostalgia for us. But this is a completely different animal,” said Benson, who wryly notes that he posed for a photo with the wooden spoon “trophy” that passes to the league’s last-place finisher at FCC’s final ‘22 home game, grateful that at least that distinction would be avoided this year.

“The level of the game that we used to watch compared to what we’re currently watching, it's tenfold higher. There's a lot of supporters just learning more and more about the game. So it's not only growing in the city, but just continuing to watch it worldwide.”

And if the Garys manage to pull off another stunner against the East’s No. 1 seed, you can expect another hearty crowd at Lunken again, even for a wee-hours touchdown.

“The fan base, we loved this team in the USL era, just making connections with the players, and this year it's really felt different in that a lot of these players really seem like they've embraced the city and that the city has been eager to embrace them back,” said Broo.

“You've got Brandon Vazquez, who has been outspoken about his love of how much he likes playing here; Lucho, just the way he's just become a fan favorite here. So I think that that connection with the players specifically, and people wanting to have that connection with the team – it seems like they're out there on the road fighting for us. The least we can do is show up and welcome them back when they play well, or even when they don't play well.”

Added Blandford: “If we pull it out on Thursday, I’ll get some coffee and be there.”