ATLANTA – For the past few days, the MLS world revolved around Atlanta United. The second-year club threw quite the party this week, showcasing their city’s tremendous support and their team’s top-tier talent with a record crowd and an MVP award for forward Josef Martinez in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game presented by Target against Juventus.
The Five Stripes were the stars of the All-Star festivities, but behind the scenes, Major League Soccer’s next expansion team was busy working to ensure they can have a similarly successful launch. FC Cincinnati are in the middle of one of the biggest weeks in their three-year history as they prepare to join MLS in 2019. They got things off to a flying start on Monday when they landed Designated Player striker Fanendo Adi from the Portland Timbers and acquired midfielder Fatai Alashe from the San Jose Earthquakes, with both players set to finish the season with the club in USL before moving back into MLS. Important face time with the MLS Board of Governors followed on Wednesday in Atlanta. On Saturday, the first-place squad will host future fellow MLS expansion team Nashville SC in a high-profile USL match.
And while it would be a big ask for FCC to match the same level of early success as Atlanta, the evidence is mounting that the club intend to start closer to the Five Stripes’ end of the spending spectrum than most outside of Cincinnati may have expected.
“We obviously are a very ambitious club,” club president and GM Jeff Berding, a longtime Cincinnati Bengals executive who has led FCC from its founding in 2015, told MLSsoccer.com in Atlanta. “Three years ago, I was still an executive at the Cincinnati Bengals, I hadn’t even left the Bengals, so this has moved very fast.”
They haven’t been on the scene long, but Berding and FC Cincinnati, who are owned by Cincinnati native Carl Lindner III, have already made an incredible amount of progress. They’ve led USL in attendance in every season of their existence and are drawing nearly 25,000 fans per game at Nippert Stadium this season, a number that would place them fourth in MLS. Berding expects to be “well north” of that average next year, saying the club could end up selling as many as 25,000 season tickets for 2019 and that he expects attendance to be near 30,000.
They’ve already secured a jersey sponsorship for 2019 with Mercy Health that will rank among the most lucrative in MLS and, according to the club, will be on par with Atlanta’s deal with American Family Insurance. Berding also said that FCC lead USL in merchandise sales and that they would fall among the top teams in MLS in the category this year. There should be plenty of opportunities for Cincinnati to move more merch ahead of their launch. The club are refreshing their crest, identity and jersey and presented their proposed new look to the Board of Governors and adidas for approval on Wednesday.
FCC are now focused on their future stadium, which is set to open in 2021. Berding said the club expect to break ground on their new home in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood in the fourth quarter of 2018. He’s currently trying to secure a naming rights deal for the new facility, updated plans for which were also shown to the MLS Board of Governors on Wednesday. The club also expect to break ground on a $35 million training facility later this year that will open soon after the start of the 2019 season.
Regardless of how quickly they sell stadium naming rights, FCC should generate plenty of revenue next season. They’re planning to put that money back into the team, with Berding and club technical director Luke Sassano telling MLSsoccer.com saying the club intends to sign at least one, potentially two DPs to join Adi before the start of next season. Sassano also said the club will use at least a portion of the $2.8 million in discretionary Targeted Allocation Money available to every MLS team next season.
Both Berding and Sassano said they won’t be spending the kind of money that Atlanta and 2018 expansion team LAFC have thus far in their existences, but they won’t be scraping the bottom of the barrel, either. It’s possible that one of their DPs could make significantly more than the nearly $2 million Adi is set to be paid, too. Sassano said FCC, which, as part of their rebrand, will be known as Fussball Club Cincinnati starting next season, are exploring signing a DP from the German Bundesliga. He didn’t want to get too specific about how much that player might cost, but he did acknowledge that high-quality players from that part of the world don’t often come cheap.
“I think the number one thing is we have an owner that is committed to winning. On the sporting side, that’s all you can ask for,” Sassano told MLSsoccer.com. “When you have the proper resources, and not just in terms of salary, but we’re building a $35 million training facility, we’re going to have a $250 million stadium in two years, so we have not just the salary considerations from our ownership group, but we also have the off the field with how we can prepare these guys from day one to be comfortable.”
Added Berding: “We’ve studied [the recent expansion teams] and there are some teams that are doing extraordinarily well and have the resources to be right there at the top. By no means do we anticipate being all the way up there, but we’re confident that we’ll have the resources to be very competitive.”
They’ve already been aggressive with their move for Adi and plan to continue to be so in the transfer market, but FC Cincinnati will have a distinct USL flavor next year, too. Head coach Alan Koch has never coached above the USL level, but he recently signed a contract extension that will keep him in Cincinnati through 2020. The club, which is going hard after a USL title this fall, will also bring some of its current players with them to MLS.
Berding cited a range of “four to 10” players that have made the jump with past lower division teams who have moved into MLS and said FCC will almost certainly fall in that range. No players on the current roster other than Adi and Alashe have guaranteed MLS deals, but at least one, midfielder Nazmi Albadawi, signed a multi-year USL contract with the club this past offseason.
Finding the proper balance between USL players and new acquisitions will be key. Atlanta and LAFC and the rest of the top teams in MLS are led by their stars, but they’re fed by their depth. Without Julian Gressel or Marco Ureña, Atlanta and LAFC’s stars aren’t as effective. Getting good contributions from the back half of their roster will be almost as key for Cincinnati as getting star performances from Adi and any other DPs.
Their technical staff will also have a bit of a different look than most MLS squads. Berding is FCC’s chief business officer and chief soccer officer, roles that are separated at most MLS clubs. He’s also relatively new to the soccer world, never having worked in the game before leaving the Bengals to join FCC three years ago. The setup has worked more than fine in USL, of course, and Berding said Sassano, Koch and a to-be-hired director of scouting will run most of the day-to-day operations on the technical side, but the structure bears watching.
Setting aside the specifics of how they build their technical staff, front office and, most importantly, roster, expect FC Cincinnati to continue to try to make bold moves as they make the jump to MLS over the winter.
“Candidly, the city wanted a winner and was ready for a team and an ownership group that was ambitious and that wanted to win, wanted to win trophies, wanted to have a party on Fountain Square and was not afraid to step out and say that’s the goal and then would do what it took to deliver on it,” said Berding. “We had a vision, a plan on how we were going to get there and then we held people accountable. When people weren’t performing, we moved on from them and I think to some fans, they were maybe impressed by that.
“And I think you take that all the way up to us signing Adi and Fatai [on Monday]. People said, ‘Are you sending a message?’ No. This is how we’ve done things since we started, this is consistent with how we’ve operated this club from the very beginning. We’ve been an ambitious club, we’ve pushed the envelope a bit, we want to win and that’s what our fans expect.”