CINCINNATI — Thank you, Cincinnati. Thank you, Die Innenstadt. Thank you, The Pride. Thank you to everyone who made Sunday a bucket-list soccer day that I will never, ever forget.
I landed in the Queen City late on Saturday night, a fly on the wall for 36 hours before jetting right back to New York City. I won’t pretend to know what makes this corner of the United States tick. I don’t know Cincinnati’s history, not intimately anyway. I don’t know what it means to be a sports fan here, what baggage folks carry or how the past is shaping the present.
Here’s what I do know. I know the Turtle (barbacoa, Gomez style) from Gomez Salsa might just be the best late-night food I’ve ever had. I know Over-the-Rhine is a great place to have a beer (or three). I know blue and orange were the unofficial colors of St. Patrick’s Day. I know Cincinnati is a soccer town.
Every time I leave my little bubble, I’m reminded that soccer culture in North America is not a monolith. Cincinnati is not Portland. Portland is not Seattle. Seattle is not Atlanta. Atlanta is not Toronto. Toronto is not Montreal. So on and so forth, from Vancouver to Miami and everywhere in between.
What makes the block-by-block building of the beautiful game so special in our part of the world is that our cultures can’t, and won’t, be identical. It’s not physically possible. Distance creates diversity. The way the beautiful game flows through each of us is an expression of our souls.
And my god, Cincinnatians’ soccer souls were singing on Sunday as they introduced MLS to Nippert Stadium and what they’ve built here during three seasons in USL. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot in this game we all love.
My day started, fittingly, at Mecklenburg Gardens. The German beer hall has been a part of the fabric of the city since 1865, a place to drink a lager the size of your head, a place to meet your friends, a place to be part of something bigger than yourself. It still is. It’s where Die Innenstadt meets before every home match.
There were fewer than 15 members when the group formed back in 2016, a Reddit post, word of mouth and some shared beers giving birth to a supporters group. On Sunday, along with a healthy contingent of Timbers Army, they occupied every imaginable inch of the old German watering hole.
In a matter of hours, Die Innenstadt gained more than 100 new members. They sold out of scarves before the party really got rolling. They thanked me for coming. I thanked them for making me feel like one of their own. At 3:30 pm, they massed on University Avenue to march the mile to the stadium. Nobody knew how it would turn out.
But people kept coming, and they didn’t stop. Traffic did, though. Bystanders gawked. College kids stuck their heads out doors and windows to bay their approval. By the time we reached Top Cats on Vine Street, where The Pride’s pregame party was raging, the line snaked back a few city blocks.
A few blocks later, with The Pride in tow, I turned around to see how many had joined the march. There’s no point trying to describe what I saw, other than to say I got goosebumps.
I was downright giddy by the time we packed around the Bearcat statute in the Corteo on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. The supporters popped smoke and sang their lungs out, incredulous that this was the scene they’d created. They made their way to the Bailey. They unveiled their biggest tifo yet. Their boys ran out 3-0 winners against last year’s MLS Cup runners-up. It was a perfect day.
Well, it happened again. Nobody I talked to on Sunday could truly explain it. How and why had the city embraced this sport and this team so quickly, with such utter abandon? And what’s next?
Whatever it is, it will come straight from the soul of the Queen City.
As Pride president Chris White told me, “We’re building the airplane while we fly it.”
On Sunday, it was a hell of a ride.