The Orange and Blue are the latest expansion team to become a success with fans. Major League Soccer appears to have done its research
Before Atlanta United, expansion teams in Major League Soccer were given something of a free pass. Between 1997, when the Chicago Fire became the divisions first expansion franchise, and 2016, when The Five Stripes entered the fray, only one expansion side (Seattle Sounders) made the play-offs in their first season. It was outlandish to expect anything more than that from a team typically assembled from scratch in the space of weeks. All that changed with Atlanta, though.
While some teams are still waiting to break their MLS Cup duck (looking at you, New York Red Bulls), Atlanta United managed to win the title in just two seasons. Not only that, they did so having triggered a soccer awakening in the city, drawing record-breaking crowds. Now, all MLS expansion teams will, fairly or unfairly, be measured by what Tata Martino, Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez et al achieved.
They dont have an Almiron or a Martinez, but coach Alan Koch and the FC Cincinnati front office have put together an exciting, dynamic group of players. Former Vancouver forward Kekuta Manneh has hit the ground running, us international Kenny Saief, signed on loan from Anderlecht in the off-season, is in the form of his lIfe, while in Nick Hagglund and Greg Garza the Orange and Blue have a defensive foundation steeped in recent MLS Cup success. Garza, of course, was a championship-winner with Atlanta just last year.
But its more than just FC Cincinnatis on-the-field results that have caught the eye. Just as in Atlanta, a communitys passion for soccer has been roused, with a sell-out crowd of 32,250 fans recorded for FC Cincinnatis home opener. Footage bounced around social Media of the March To The Match which filled the streets around Nippert Stadium before kick off. The sight of thoUSAnds upon thoUSAnds of fans clad in orange and blue was so striking that some with tongues in cheek – questioned the authenticity of the images. This couldnt really be happening in Cincinnati, could it?
Perhaps we shouldnt be surprised. While Atlantas rise was somewhat unexpected, Cincinnati has long been hailed as a cradle of soccer in North America. Some put that down to the citys German heritage. Others simply point to a well-run usL outfit which harnessed the local soccer community, attracting huge crowds to Nippert Stadium, years before MLS entry. Whatever the reason, MLS in Cincinnati feels right.
After this season, expansion teams may have another yardstick with which to measure themselves. Teams of more modest resources may talk about doing a Cincinnati rather than doing an Atlanta with the move to Ohio just another indicator of MLSs recent success in picking expansion locations. If the 2014 introduction of New York City FC and Orlando City can be considered the start of Phase Three in the leagues development, barely a misstep has been made since then. Atlanta United, Minnesota United, Los Angeles FC, the two aforementioned teams and, of course, FC Cincinnati have all added something worthwhile to MLS, contributing to the overall prosperity of North Americas fasting-growing sports league.
The process of picking an expansion location can be a fraught one. MLS is an attractive proposition right now and so the league could, If it wanted to, stretch into every market in North America. Just look at the competition for the final spot on the leagues current expansion timeline – interest has been registered, at one point or another, from groups in Charleston, Charlotte, Detroit, Las Vegas, Louisville, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego and St Louis. Not every market is right for MLS, though, and so the league must plot its route carefully.
The expansion of Inter Miami will be a real test of MLSs strategy. South Florida was, of course, previously home to an MLS franchise, but the Miami Fusion famously failed to attract the local soccer community and folded amid financial dIfficulty after just four seasons. Ownership issues might have been the primary cause of death for the Fusion, but Miami is notorious for being an exceptionally challenging sports market. What will Inter Miami, who will also play in Fort Lauderdale at first, do that their predecessors didnt?
Success in Miami might ease the need for MLS to be quite so forensic in its expansion plans. If the league can make it there, it can make it anywhere, or at least that would be the argument. Until then, however, new teams and new cities must be picked carefully. MLS has got things right in recent years and the sight of FC Cincinnati, a well-constructed team playing in front of sell-out crowds, is just another sign of that.