On Orange-and-Blue Day, expansion city Cincinnati "a perfect fit for MLS"

CINCINNATI—Tuesday evening in Cincinnati's "Over-the-Rhine" neighborhood, a multi-year journey culminated in a single moment.

With a raucous, Orange-and-Blue clad crowd of 800 gathered at the Rhinegeist brewery, two bleachers full of chanting supporters surrounding the stage and thousands of others in Fountain Square and beyond tuning into the live stream, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber slipped a scarf around the neck of Carl H. Lindner III and announced FC Cincinnati as the 26th club to join MLS, beginning in 2019.

“Cincinnati is a perfect fit for MLS,” Garber said. “It is a city on the rise. It is an economically emerging city in the Midwest, it's got an incredible re-birth of the historic West End, the “Over the Rhine” district.

“From the very first time we met Carl, he had us at 'Hello.' He loves this city, he loves FC Cincinnati – there's a lot of orange around Carl Lindner and his family. He has this commitment to quality, this desire to build a “best-in-class” operation for this city and he was going to be tireless in his pursuit of bringing MLS to town. And for those of you who know Carl, when he sets his mind to do something, he gets it done.”

Through two full seasons in USL, FC Cincinnati has shattered attendance records, total, average or single game. Averaging more than 21,000 fans in 2017, during a run to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals, FCC three times turned out 30,000-plus to historic Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus, where they'll open MLS play; a 21,000-seat stadium in the West End neighborhood is scheduled for completion in 2021.

Those supporters showed in force Tuesday, packing the brewery adorned in enough Orange and Blue to exhaust the infinite possbility of combination: Hat-and-scarf, shirt-and-tie, sundress-and-sandals in lozenge and stripes and argyle and solids, in gingham and paisley and plaid; one half expected an Orange-and-Blue fascinator to crash this expansion wedding in Southern Ohio.

Lindner credited that fervor with driving the bid to success: “Because of all of you, our amazing supporters, FC Cincinnati has become an organic, region-wide movement that has added a refreshing new thread to our rising and growing urban core. Our club’s meteoric rise has been a source of tremendous pride for all of us.

“We all came together, worked for something bigger than us, and we’re here today because of that connection and that common goal.”

On Orange-and-Blue Day, expansion city Cincinnati "a perfect fit for MLS" - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/Cincy%20Fans.jpg

FC Cincinnati supporters singing during an event announcing the expansion of MLS to the city, beginning next season | USA Today Sports Images

For Lindner and FCC President and GM Jeff Berding, Tuesday's event capped a stunning rise to soccer relevance, borne of an August 2015 meeting where the Ohio natives laid the groundwork for a shared vision they eventually achieved.

Lindner had been exploring an entry point for a soccer investment options after picking the brain of family friend and MLS investor Phil Anschutz, which led to conversations with the University of Cincinnati about a potential stadium and, subsequently, Commissioner Garber.

With a sense of what potential paths toward MLS ownership could look like, Lindner said his interest aligned with an opportunity presented to Berding, whom he said had an option to buy a USL team in Dayton. That brought them to the fated table.

“We had a vision of where we were going,” Berding said. “We had a plan for how we were going to get there and we were guarded by the same core values. “It's appropirate that we're here today in a bar – it fits the identity of the club. We're accessible to everyone; our people come together. We're not on some big mountaintop looking down, we're down here in the literal valley of our town celebrating each other and celebrating our city. We were determined to celebrate the power of sports, and we embraced our platform to inspire, to unite, to lead.”

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, whose rousing speech closed out the festivities, helped drive a political push to capitalize on the fervor and edge out a City Council vote, 5-4, with the help of a robust Commmunity Benefits Agreement.

Cranley made it clear he felt FC Cincinnati joining MLS would prove to be one of the cornerstones of a city he feels is ahead of the development curve, surging toward a shared vision for the future.

“There was one group ahead of all of us,” Cranley said. “And that was the fan base of FCC. We heard you, we listened to you and we delivered for you because we tried hard to be the servant leaders that our faith in Cincinnati calls us to be. It is now, officially, Orange and Blue day in Cincinnati.”

Unofficially, no one expects it to be the last.