Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber went so far as to say Cincinnati deserves to be in MLS during a town hall meeting with FC Cincinnati fans Tuesday, but he left the audience with the overriding message there is still plenty of work to be done.
Garber spent the day checking out Cincinnati as a potential future expansion market, as FC Cincinnati made its big pitch to be included among the next wave of five spots still up for grabs.
The visit included a tour around the urban core of the city, a stop at the club’s shared facility at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium and meetings with various club, city and business leaders before the question-and-answer session with fans in a public event at Woodward Theater.
“This is the beginning of your chapter,” Garber told the wall-to-wall audience. “I think it really started with what you’ve done in your first year in USL. We all have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of things we have to figure out with the league, and there is a lot that still needs to be done here to continue to build this club, to continue to build the fan base, to continue to figure out what it’s long-term stadium solution is, but I will say I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen here. Cincinnati deserves an MLS team.”
MLS hopes to expand from 20 teams to 28 by the mid- to late-2020s but the first three markets are already set with Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC joining in 2017 and Los Angeles FC following in 2018. Miami hangs in the balance as the 24th team but David Beckham’s group is still working to finalize a stadium plan.
FC Cincinnati worked its way into the conversation while blowing away USL attendance records and averaging a stunning 17,296 fans in its first season.
In an interview after the meeting, Garber declined to specify a pecking order for Cincinnati and other markets in consideration for expansion; however, ESPN lead MLS analyst Taylor Twellman, who served as emcee for the town hall event, said he cannot picture expansion without Cincinnati.
“I think if we’re talking about a first division of 28 teams, that’s a struggle for me if FC Cincinnati is not on that list because your opening season of a club, if you’re averaging what they are … the fans are there,” Twellman said in an interview with media Tuesday morning.
Twellman said that likely means planning for a soccer-specific stadium down the road, which was something Garber also addressed as something for the club to figure out. Both believe Nippert is a solid facility for now.
“I think for now it’s a great solution,” Garber said. “If we could wave a magic wand, we would love to have soccer stadiums downtown in every market. That’s not always the situation for us. We have teams like Seattle that play in a football stadium downtown and about 42,000 fans a game come. I think Nippert has been great, but you’ve got lots of time to figure out whether or not that’s the long-term solution.”
When asked to expand on how necessary a soccer-specific stadium plan would be for a team to be included in expansion, Garber said “all expansion candidates must have a long-term stadium plan.”
“FC Cincinnati will develop that plan,” Garber added. “I’m sure Nippert will be part of that plan, and whether or not it’s their long-term solution is for them to decide.”
Garber said he would like to be able to say Cincinnati set itself apart from other cities he has visited, but “the reality is that there is enormous passion for professional soccer in many cities outside of Major League Soccer.”
Determining which teams to include in expansion will come down to three main things, he said.
“It starts with ownership,” Garber said. “You’ve got owners that believe, that are committed, that want to create a legacy in the community, believe in our sport and want to be one of those pioneers to help build the sport. Then, you need this. The city that supports the club, that’s got great fans and passionate fans, and then you’ve got the right building. And it’s really in that order.”
FC Cincinnati owner Carl Lindner III said he was excited by the support displayed by fans, starting with the group of nearly 100 individuals that showed up to welcome Garber as he stepped off a plane at Lunken Airport on Tuesday morning.
The fans were a big part in showing how passionate the city is about bringing MLS to Cincinnati, and Lindner hopes the visit helps shape the next discussions at the next expansion committee meeting Dec. 15.
“I think we can learn a lot, no doubt, but I think with some of the things happening here in Cincinnati, we’re surprising the whole world,” Lindner said. “… I think we could be a great part of MLS if we were so blessed to get a bid.”