CINCINNATI — With each impressive crowd at Nippert Stadium this season, speculation swirled about whether FC Cincinnati had what it took to join Major League Soccer at some point in the future.
Last Tuesday was all about confirming those aspirations and developing a strategy moving forward, as MLS Commissioner Don Garber visited Cincinnati on a one-day trip.
Garber met with both club and city officials this past Tuesday, ending the evening with a town hall conversation about FC Cincinnati, MLS expansion and the growth of soccer in North America.
The club only recently concluded its first season of existence in USL, but Garber pointed out that the city and club were moving in the right direction. As part of the long-term path to MLS, a primary talking point that emerged Tuesday was the development of a soccer-specific stadium.
“All expansion candidates must have a long-term stadium plan,” Garber told the media after the town hall. “FC Cincinnati will develop that plan, and I’m sure Nippert Stadium will be a part of that.”
Originally the home of the University of Cincinnati football team, FC Cincinnati partnered with the university to play home matches in the 35,061-capacity venue. The club averaged 17,296 spectators and sold out an international friendly with English Premier League side Crystal Palace in July.
Currently, Nippert is undergoing a $2 million renovation to expand the field’s dimensions, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
“You’ve got lots of time to figure out if that’s the best long-term solution,” Garber said of the venue and how it might fit into the club’s future stadium plans. “This is a process and this is the first step. It’s only year one.”
Since the team’s unveiling in August 2015, interest in the United Soccer League club has exploded. Originally, club officials hoped for 5,000 season-ticket holders for the 2016 season. In Cincinnati’s last match — a playoff loss to the Charleston Battery — an astounding 30,187 people were in attendance.
Club officials say they’re now focused on maintaining the already rabid support and continuing to grow.
“This doesn’t happen everyday,” FC Cincinnati head coach John Harkes said before the town hall began. “This is special.”
Assuming the club can sustain its attendance and community interest, it will hope to be in the running for future rounds of expansion after 2020 as MLS looks to reach 28 teams. That year would only be Cincinnati’s fifth season as a club.
“Today was a little bit of an audition for us and I think our city passed it with flying colors,” Jeff Berding, the club’s president and general manager, said. “Our commitment is to bring professional soccer at the highest level to Cincinnati, and we’ll take the challenges as they come."