Done deal: MLS awards expansion franchise to Cincinnati

League’s 26th team will begin play in 2019 at Nippert Stadium until new stadium is built

Less than two months after FC Cincinnati completed its first United Soccer League campaign in 2016, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber swooped in and charmed the local fan base with big hopes for the future by saying Cincinnati “deserves an MLS team.”

Exactly 18 months later, he returned to officially invite FC Cincinnati into the top division.

FCC, now in its third season, was named the league's 26th team Tuesday during a special event at Rhinegeist, a brewery in Over-the-Rhine. The club will begin MLS play in 2019, with plans to remain at Nippert Stadium until its new 21,000-seat soccer-specific stadium is completed in the West End in 2021.

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“You guys had me at ‘Hello,’ when I got off the plane 18 months ago,” Garber said, addressing the fans. “You’ve done incredible things. You have shocked the world. You showed us if you have the right city and if you have the right ownership and management, if you have the right public support and you have the ability to bring the fans together from around this sport for a new America, great things can happen and the world has taken notice.”

The celebratory announcement Tuesday brought a collective sense of relief and joy to fans, club personnel and local government officials who supported Cincinnati's bid to become one of four expansion franchises made open by a formal application process last January.

“We did it!” majority owner Carl Lindner shouted with a smile upon taking the podium as the last speaker following Garber awarding the bid. He called Cincinnati’s selection into MLS a “triumph for the continued renaissance of this incredible city.”

It felt like a long time coming.

During Garber's visit on November 29, 2016, he said there was "a lot" that still needed "to be done here," but as the expansion process played out, it seemed FC Cincinnati was checking all the boxes. It seemed just a matter of time, but as weeks past anxiety grew.

Nashville was awarded a spot in December when the first two clubs were expected to be named, and Cincinnati has been waiting ever since to find out if it would get in ahead of the two other finalists in Sacramento and Detroit. Deadlines came and went, and even after Cincinnati City Council approved plans for theclub-financed $250 million West End stadium on April 16, no news followed until Thursday when FCC confirmed with a press release there would be a "major announcement regarding the future of soccer in Cincinnati" on Tuesday.

“This is a heady moment for a humble kid from the West Side of Cincinnati,” FCC president and general manager Jeff Berding said during a passionate speech to kick things off Tuesday.

MLS actually gave Cincinnati the thumbs up on April 29 during a meeting that included Garber, Lindner and Berding in Los Angeles. They were there to watch Los Angeles FC’s inaugural game at its newly-built stadium.

“I was very comfortable with the commitments on the stadium site,” Garber said. “I had spoken to the mayor and knew they had control of the West (End) site. That was very important to us. Long-term this not just about a team. It’s about how good this team will be part of the rebirth of this city, and when you have a site like that you can really dream big dreams about what this might look like five, 10, 20 years from now, and that was a really important part of what our hope was for what Carl Lindner and his partners could put together.”

»PHOTOS: MLS awards Cincinnati expansion franchise

Locking down the West End site was the holdup since the four finalists made their formal pitches to MLS in December, Garber confirmed. He said the other sites in Newport and Oakley didn’t resonate as well as the truly urban location in the West End.

Club and city officials knew they had a good chance at the bid if the stadium plan came together, Berding and mayor John Cranley said.

However, Garber wasn’t so sure about Cincinnati as an expansion city when Berding and Lindner first started inquiring during the inaugural season in 2016. His visit that November showed him how passionate the fans were about the club and his interest grew exponentially after attending a game at Nippert last summer when he was able to see live the atmosphere created by a supportive market.

“It was when Cincinnati put their (unofficial) bid in before we came to visit that we were sort of scratching our heads and saying, ‘Cincinnati?’ And now we’re saying Cincinnati!” Garber said. “There is a lot that has happened over the last year, year and a half.”

The club now averages 24,417 fans a game in a minor league that averages less than 5,000. And just like FCC always has done, the organization focused on the fans Tuesday.

“This club and this city truly deserve this,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “We’ve all witnessed what’s been happening in the city, we’ve all witnessed the fans that are showing up for every single game and it’s truly remarkable, and obviously Major League Soccer made a great decision today.”

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