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Inside FC Cincinnati - ATL UTD 2’s next opponent - and its bid to become MLS’ newest franchise

ATL UTD 2 heads up to take on FC Cincinnati on Saturday - a club that could soon be playing top-flight soccer. We speak to someone who’s closely covered the process.

courtesy Cincinnati Soccer Talk

In some respects, FC Cincinnati’s story - apart from the USL part - is much like that of Atlanta United: a brand new soccer team (introduced in 2015, playing since 2016) that has quickly broken attendance records and has yet to see that wave of support die down. That was before and after last year’s dream U.S. Open Cup run, aided in part by current Atlanta keeper Mitch Hildebrandt, that ended against the New York Red Bulls in the semifinals in front of over 33,000 fans at Nippert Stadium.

It’s certainly caught the attention of MLS. Fast forward to today, and Cincinnati is on the verge of becoming the league’s newest expansion market. Even with several timelines for an announcement having come and gone, and the possibility that the league’s current franchise in the state of Ohio may be playing in Austin next year, the feeling is that it’s not a matter of “if” Cincinnati will land an MLS team, but a matter of “when”.

ATL UTD 2 will get a taste of that environment as they take on FC Cincinnati on Saturday at 7:00 pm. About an hour and a half later and 300 miles away, parent club Atlanta United squares off against a Fire club that came to know the FCC story all too well last year: with over 32,000 fans gathered at Nippert Stadium and many more watching on ESPN, Hildebrandt turned in a superlative 10-save performance and later stopped three penalty attempts out of four in Cincinnati’s Open Cup Round of 16 win.

Bryan Weigel, co-host of Cincinnati Soccer Talk, took a few minutes with me to go in-depth on FC Cincinnati, the city’s MLS bid, Saturday’s matchup against ATL UTD 2, and more.

DSS: I had a chance to watch FCC’s match against the Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup on ESPN2 last year, and it was amazing to see the fan support (which is nothing new considering that they lead the league in USL attendance). From a tangible standpoint, how did that evening change the discussion from “MLS could possibly work here” to “There’s no doubt that an MLS franchise could thrive here” or was that already the mindset long before that Cup run?

BW: Honestly I think the mindset of “no doubt that an MLS franchise could thrive here” happened during the early part of last season. We had experienced good fan support in the first campaign with solid attendance (17,834 avg.), but we all wanted to see how many “die-hard” fans would stay the course into year two. Last season FCC had 10 home games in a 48 day span with the lowest league contest drawing 18,214 fans. You need to have a solid base to maintain those high numbers in D2 soccer, one that has grown to almost 17,000 season ticket holders in year three. The Open Cup matches were icing on top of the cake. 30,000+ fans in Nippert for those three games was incredible and they all rank in some of my most favorite sporting moments.

DSS: I read that ESPN’s Taylor Twellman is predicting that there could be a “resolution” within the next two weeks, and now it looks like MLS executives are headed to the city. Is that 10-14 day timespan realistic to you as someone who’s living in Cincinnati and keeping a close track of things on a daily basis?

BW: Honestly, I think many of us have heard 10-14 days about five or ten times in the past six months so we are taking it with a grain of salt. We feel like we have checked every box with the passage of this stadium plan and most are confident it will be soon.

The club released a statement saying MLS Commissioner Don Garber was coming to town in the very near future to tour the West End site and that the league still need to approve of Nippert Stadium. Cincinnati Soccer Talk had heard that Nippert was approved in the early Spring, so I’m not sure what else needs to happen with the temporary MLS venue approval.

I would say the fans’ biggest fear is if the #SaveTheCrew situation is affecting the bid. We all feel bad for the Crew SC supporters, but also think the league would be stronger with both teams in MLS. They brought 3000+ fans to our Open Cup match and we would bring just as many up there. My assumption is that this will be wrapped up before the World Cup, but if #SaveTheCrew is delaying the bid, who knows how long it will take.

DSS: Can you dive into the West End stadium site? It obviously wasn’t without controversy, but it appears that the site is a go for now. From an accessibility standpoint, is it easy/hard to get to from various points in the city?

BW: Personally I think the West End Stadium Plan will be the model for all future MLS markets. The stadium is near several large population centers within walking distance including the redeveloped Over-The-Rhine community. OTR is an area that has experienced significant investment and now boasts many breweries, restaurants and establishments that will make for a top-notch game day experience. It’s also an area thriving with renovated housing and many will be able to walk to FCC matches from their homes.

There has been a little turmoil within our local governments about the specific site. It was important for all parties that FC Cincinnati make the public school system whole when building in that community. The club will build the school system a brand new $10 million football stadium to replace the one on the current FCC stadium site. FC Cincinnati will also provide payments in lieu of taxes to the system upwards of $25 million over the next 15 years. Once that was figured out, many of the other pieces came into place.

The West End site will be accessible from many main interstates and should have enough parking to accommodate the large crowds. FC Cincinnati’s stadium will also sit a couple blocks off the Streetcar route which connects the riverfront living area (The Banks & Current) to the Central Business District and up to Over-The-Rhine. MLS asked for the stadium to be in an urban environment and I think this plan will be the envy of many clubs.

DSS: To pivot to the team on the field, they’re two points back of the defending champions (Louisville City FC). What’s been the key to their success, and who should ATL UTD 2 fans be looking out for on Saturday?

BW: While FCC is in second place, they are far from playing at the top of their game. That should speak to the immense quality in the squad. Coach Alan Koch has lined them up in two different ways, a 4-2-3-1 that tries to play wide and a 4-4-2 Diamond with four central midfielders that play narrow. The 4-2-3-1 has had its issues in 2018, with the club almost bypassing the midfield and settling for crosses. That formation did lead to three goals on Wednesday however. The 4-4-2 has seen FCC play a lot of the quick touching and passing needed to break down quality defenses. FC Cincinnati put up 2 goals vs. the best defense in Pittsburgh and four goals in two matches vs. Indy XI, the league’s 2nd best defense.

I’d expect to see the 4-4-2 with Emmanuel “Manu” Ledesma as a second or withdrawn Forward. I think Manu is the most-talented player in the USL and can break down defenses with his precision passing and vision. Newcomers Michael Lahoud and Richie Ryan possess exemplary skill on the ball and have started many attacking chances for FCC while also shielding for one of the Eastern Conference’s best defenses. Let’s also not forget FCC “originals” Corben Bone and Kenney Walker, who have maintained their starting spots while their surrounding cast has changed over their three seasons in the Queen City. With the lack of a true Number 9 up front, Bone, Walker and six other FCC players have scored in which resembles a hydra offense.

DSS: Finally, I have to ask you about Mitch Hildebrandt. Of course, he’s been injured and hasn’t been able to play for ATL UTD 2 just yet, so that homecoming just won’t happen this time around. What kind on an impact on and off the field did he have while up at Cincinnati, and how was he able to become such a well-liked figure among fans?

BW: Mitch was extremely accessible to fans including brewing his own line of beers with Listermann Brewing Company (http://cincinnatisoccertalk.com/2017/11/11/mitch-says-prost). It’s hard not to fall in love with a guy who stopped three penalties vs. the Fire, but also connected with fans. He was famous for doing a “Viking clap” after matches with the supporters section known as the Bailey and would stay late to sign autographs and take photos with kids. While his stats in front of him were not as good in 2017 due to injuries in the defense, Mitch still made a huge impact and kept FCC in games. We were all happy that he got the opportunity in Atlanta and wish him the best.