Thursday, August 2, 2018

Major League Soccer in Cincinnati!

In 2012 I wrote a piece titled: "Major League Soccer in Cincinnati?"

Six years later, I got to write this followup: "Major League Soccer in Cincinnati!"

- Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber announces FC Cincinnati as the league's 23rd team.

I remember watching something as a kid. I’m not sure if it was some VHS tape or a show on Nickelodeon, but what stood out so distinctly were the kids in the program, kids my age who lived in "the city." These tykes were walking around urban streets and rode the subway to school. It was a stark contrast my reality: a son of the suburbs who hadn’t yet realized the difference between Cincinnati and its much larger counterparts like New York, LA, or Chicago.

I wondered: "where’s our subway system, where’s our city?"

Over time, I found some answers. I learned firsthand what "The Queen City" was and grew a deep appreciation, an undying love for my home. As I delved into its history and walked its streets, though, I noticed a recurring theme: there were a lot of “almost,” “what if,” and “oh, so close” moments. These kinds of events were prevalent in the past, times when our city missed the mark and stopped just short of daring to think bigger or even mirror its contemporaries.

Whether it was the failure to finish that subway system, our missed chance at an NHL team, how we thought bridges over the river would never work, that air travel was just a fad, or the interesting ways the region (and attitudes about said region) have developed, Cincinnati has always seemed like it could be more than it was. I grew up hearing dismissals of this place, hailing from an area where a night out in West Chester was once more coveted than an evening Downtown. Cincinnati wasn’t a place people identified with. I remember going away to college where kids in my dorm proudly stated that they hailed from Pittsburgh or Cleveland in introductions. Meanwhile, my fellow Cincinnatians shunned the proclamation of their regional title and elected to use their local designations. They were from from places like "Mason," "Anderson Township" and "Fairfield."

I could wax on about evolving attitudes all day, but it’s pretty evident that things have now changed. You can see it when walking down a populated Main St. in revitalized Over-The-Rhine to local retailers like "CincyShirts" that specifically dedicate their products to representing and reflecting the city in a positive light. People aren’t just spending time and money in the city, they’re identifying with it, no matter which local enclave they actually reside in. These days, it’s trendy to be “from Cincinnati,” a time when rattling off a list of new restaurants and bars you’ve visited is a badge of honor in certain circles. I’m not knocking these changing attitudes, I think it’s great that people have begun believing in this city again, joining those who’s beliefs never faltered. There’s ups and downs to every trend, but people are now taking a greater interest in their home, its history, and its potential. At the same time, we’re seeing that sort of local pride extending on a granular level to individual neighborhoods and regional cities.

It's contagious. It’s wonderful.

A few years ago, I had to perform long winded speeches that made the case for why my friends should choose to join me for a drink Downtown as opposed to the nearest chicken-wing-hawking suburban sports bar. Now, it can be daunting to keep up with where everyone wants to go, to sample what’s new. This city and its people are changing. There’s holdouts, sticks-in-the-mud who still don’t want to believe that things are different. But if you hop on the streetcar or pedal through Northern Kentucky on a RedBike, you’ll see that the “Pete Rose pearl clutching” mindset is fading. Local pride and an appreciation for your community are just one of the reasons why I fell in love with soccer. A sport I once swore that I’d always hate.

- Front page of QC/D on April 27, 2012 asking: "Major League Soccer in Cincinnati?"

I adored baseball and still do, but I once used my appreciation for the intricacies of "America’s Pastime" as justification to dismiss the “socialist sport” from foreign shores, the one that was "never popular here" and “never would be.” Then, some coworkers and friends shanghaied me to a Columbus Crew match. We went 1.5 hours up the highway to take in Major League Soccer. Truth be told, I have no idea who The Crew played that night, I just remember coming away with a newfound respect for the sport. I loved the speed, the tactics, the intensity, and the fact that it all never seemed to let up. Then there were the fans: dedicated folks who marched in together, sang in unison, and stood the whole time with their eyes and attention on their team. The clothes they donned, the signs they held, and the chants they yelled: it all reflected not just the team, but their home, a massive love and appreciation for the City of Columbus. No one kept getting up in front of me to get popcorn and no one nearby held idle conversations about the work week instead of watching the match play out. These folks simply ebbed, and flowed with the players and city around them. They were connected and I was hooked.

Columbus isn’t terribly far away and I had always been a Blue Jackets fan since “The Coats” were announced, but to me, The Crew have always felt solely like the capital city’s “thing,” a reflection of that specific community and city. I started following Major League Soccer and the lower division leagues over the years, but didn't identify with any particular club. I wondered: could Cincinnati have something similar to what I had seen around the various leagues? In 2012, I opined about that possibility and whether or not the Queen City would have a chance at being a home for an MLS team. A guy, who I only casually knew at the time, commented on that 2012 QC/D piece: “I would definitely get season tickets to 'FC Queen City'” and that "someone needs to get this discussion moving further."

However, the general consensus seemed to be: Cincy might have once been considered for the league, might have once been interested, but it was never going to happen these days.

- Ryan's QC/D comment from 2012.

Well, shit. Here we are today...

- FC Cincinnati in its inaugural season with sold out stands.

I went to see a bunch of the various indoor and outdoor teams that played throughout the area over the years, but nothing seemed to have that kind of spark, passion, following, or environment like I had seen in Columbus during the match that converted me. Then, word of FC Cincinnati leaked out. I bought a t-shirt, because even if the team came and went like so many other minor league ventures, it’d be a cool souvenir to have on hand. Then I bought season tickets. Then I helped start a supporters group with that commenter from the 2012 article and several other people. You know where the story goes from here: the massive attendance, the Crystal Palace friendly, the dramatic US Open Cup matches on national television, and the biggest bit of news lately: that FC Cincinnati is the latest team to join Major League Soccer, the highest level of the professional game in the United States. 

This post is coming quite awhile after that fateful day, but I needed a bit of time to reflect. It felt surreal to be there when it happened, still does in a way. I was surrounded by friends: people from my own supporters group, from other groups, casual fans, die hard fans, all kinds of people united in their love for not just a game, but our city. I’ll always be able to look back at that May 29, 2018 announcement video and see myself in the crowd, chanting and yelling among people who have come to mean so much. It was a watershed moment for our city. The local team wasn't just moving up a league, this city was getting a third major league sports franchise. Something, that by most accounts in years prior, had a snowball’s chance in hell of happening.

The Queen City hasn’t been on the NHL or NBA’s radar for some time (nor will it likely be in the future) and as the 2012 article pointed out: we probably weren’t on MLS’ either. You can say (and to some degrees/points rightly so) that professional sports aren’t what define a city. You may not even care for Major League Soccer’s business model or the way the game is managed in the United States, but there’s no denying this: FC Cincinnati’s admission wasn't just a big moment for soccer fans, but for this city as a whole. The buzz phrase that keeps going around is that “Cincinnati punches above its weight class.” The local soccer club is a reflection of that, defying all those who said another team would never work here, that our television market was too small, and that people would never come out to matches.

Well, here we are after forcing our way into the conversation and into the league. For at least one day, when the league commissioner stepped to the podium, it seemed like everyone was rooting at once to push the city forward.

The rest of the scenes that evening affirmed to me once again how soccer, more so than any other sport, goes hand in hand with civic pride. My friends and I crowded a streetcar and rode through the growing urban core down to Fountain Square, the mainstay gathering place still filled with a huge audience. We celebrated, we cheered, and then we retreated via train to our local watering hole, the place that dedicates a portion of its proceeds to local youth soccer and assisting refugees. A place that brings people together and drives fans of a sports team into being something more by giving back to the community.

In a lot of ways, the FC Cincinnati announcement felt like the start of a fresh era. There’s been stadium drama and there’s still a lot of opinions and views out there. I’m not dismissing anything, nor have I stopped being skeptical of certain aspects, but that MLS announcement felt good. Really, really good.  It was reaffirming that we can change how we view our city, our home.

We can strive to do bigger and better things, even when those outside (or our local talk radio hosts) say: “no.” We can buck the trend, kick Mark Twain’s alleged, “ten years behind” words to the curb. We can rise above the same old opinions and sarcastic skepticism of beleaguered sports and political columnists. 

As a City, we can and must think bigger!

This city and region still falter at times. We all know there’s work to be done, areas to grow, more attitudes to change, times when we need to keep “punching above” instead of ducking down. We need to learn from other cities, stop grinding our teeth, rolling our eyes, and dismissing new ideas (even if we’ve been doing slightly less of that in the last decade).

When FC Cincinnati was originally announced in 2015, there was this marketing video and in it were the words: “Soccer is rising. So is Cincinnati.” It was a good sentiment, but seemed like corny, tone-deaf marketing efforts of a new minor league sports franchise that could likely go the way of "the Silverbacks," "the Riverhawks," "the Kids," or "the Kings."

As it turns out, that video was right. And here we are.

Let’s keep things moving, not just in soccer, but in our greater community as well. There’s no time to rest on major league laurels. 

Also: #SaveTheCrew!

Rather than try to photograph the MLS announcement in detail, I mainly snapped photographs of the people around me, poeople I’ve come to know both casually and closely these past few soccer seasons. There’s quite a few who I didn’t see that day or didn’t have a chance to catch up with. Whether I made a photograph of you on May 29 or caught up with you at the bar, a match, or somewhere around town later on: thank you. There are so, so many good people surrounding this club and this city. See you all at the bar and stadium this weekend. Juncta Juvant!

- ESPN Commentator and former MLS player Taylor Twellman speaking at the expansion announcement.

- Rhingeist's Brewery's main hall. Let it always be known that the heart and soul of this club and city isn't just the people in these seats, but those who couldn't get into that room that day: the folks on the roof, at Fountain Square, at work, at home, etc. It's the supporters and the players on the pitch that are the ones driving things more so than any local politician ever will.

- Supporters near the stage.

- Fountain Square bound streetcar.

- Fountain Square.

- Die Innenstadt scarf on the Genius of Water.

- Skyline.

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