by Tony Wyman
Cincinnati – Soccer Powerhouse
It isn’t unusual to see the U.S. Women’s National Team, arguably America’s favorite soccer team, fill the stands wherever they play. So it wasn’t shocking when 30,529 people filled the seats at the University of Cincinnati’s venerable Nippert Stadium to watch the United States, led by Alex Morgan and Cincinnati native Rose LaVelle, crush the New Zealand team, 5-0. On a Tuesday night. During the school year. When the city had been pelted by rain, lightning and thunderstorms all day. And when the Reds were in town playing the Cardinals in front of just 17,165 fans.
What was unusual, though, was to see the number of FC Cincinnati shirts in the crowd, mixed in with US team jerseys. Everywhere fans looked, there were nearly as many orange and blue jerseys as there were U.S. National team kits. Some fans even had U.S. jerseys on below FC hats and scarves. While a lot of fans came to see Alex and Rose play, just as many came, it seemed, because Cincinnati is now a soccer town.
“It’s a celebration of our soccer moment,” FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding told the Cincinnati Business Courier. “This is not about FC Cincinnati. It’s a celebration of the women’s national soccer team and their success. It certainly casts Cincinnati in a great light once again. It shows the city’s renaissance, and we’re proud to be part of that renaissance.”
A soccer renaissance is what is happening in Cincinnati. Even U.S. Women’s National Team Coach Jill Ellis sees it. She praised the area for creating great players through the youth system the city has. “This has become a city that’s known for its soccer,” she told the Courier. “Good players are coming out of here. There’s a youth organization here.”
One of those players is Rose LaVelle, a graduate of and stand-out star from nearby Mount Notre Dame High School, a private, all-girls Catholic school, where she was named a NSCAA all-region player in her junior and senior years.
But where she really earned her early stripes was with Cincinnati United Premier (CUP), the city’s preeminent youth soccer organization, before going on to play at the University of Wisconsin. A team of mine, then ranked in the top ten in the state of Ohio, played LaVelle’s team in a match in 2013, during her last season before going to college. We knew who she was and assigned two defenders to mark her throughout the game to no avail as Cup beat us, 5-1, with LaVelle scoring a brace.
CUP joined with Kings Hammer Soccer Club, another large and well-funded youth club covering the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area, to create the Cincinnati Development Academy, one of only a handful of DAs, as they are called, in the country for girls. The mission of the DA is to elevate the level of the game played by the best players to a standard matching the best clubs in Europe and other places where soccer, or “football” as it is known everywhere but the United States, is the most popular sport.
The fact that Cincinnati was awarded a DA by the United States Soccer Federation is a nod to the popularity soccer has in the area. Players from more than a dozen youth clubs fill public parks and soccer complexes every day throughout the area, dragging along parents who, as children, never played the game before. Now, those parents are becoming ardent fans of the sport. “I played football when I was in high school,” a dad dressed in FC Cincinnati gear told me at the game against New Zealand, “but both my sons and my daughter play soccer now because all their friends are playing. Now I barely watch the Bengals anymore and spend more time watching the EPL (English Premier League) on TV.”
This dad, an FC Cincinnati ticket holder, also worried about letting his sons play football because of all the bad press the sport has gotten about long-term brain injuries. “My wife really worried about letting our boys play, since both of them are short. She was afraid they’d get concussions or worse. That can happen in soccer, of course, but they feel a lot better after two or three matches over a weekend than I did when I was their age after just one Friday game.”
But, concerns about injuries aside, the game of soccer alone is what is attracting so many new Cincinnati fans and athletes to the sport. Jonah Fontela, a soccer reporter from Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the Queen City “the capital of American soccer” in an article he wrote for US Soccer’s website. “Cincinnati, Ohio is the capital of American Soccer. Let it sink in. Say it out loud and let it roll around your mind.” He cited the atmosphere at Nippert as being the best in American soccer, quoting FC midfielder Andrew Wiedeman who said he got goosebumps “literally for the first time” playing on his home pitch. “It was the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in my career,” said Wiedeman, “and I say that having played in all the big MLS stadiums.”
The local bar scene’s atmosphere has also picked up a lot since FC Cincinnati started playing at Nippert. Before then, most of the bars had sleepy local crowds with a smattering of college students providing some energy, but nothing like what owners are reporting on FC game nights. Now, places like Mecklenburg’s Garden, home of the FC Cincinnati supporter’s group Die Innenstadts (In German, the group’s name means “Inner City.”) meet before matches to hoist beers, sing songs, fire themselves up for the contest ahead, before marching up the street to join up with other groups decorated with FC colors heading to the stadium. The crowd of supporters has numbered in the thousands, overwhelming casual strollers out for a night on the town and filling the air with orange smoke from flairs the most ardent fans burn during the march.
FC Cincinnati have two matches left in their season, an October 8th match at Ottawa Fury FC and an October 14th match at Toronto FC II. They finished their home season with a 4-2 thriller against New York Red Bulls II in front of 30,417 on September 29th, a single game record for the United Soccer League. The team cemented its position as the number one drawing team in the USL, putting an impressive 83% more fans in seats than the number two team in league, Sacramento Republic FC. In the meantime, the city’s other two professional teams, the Reds and the Bengals, were 26th of 30 teams and 29th of 32 teams, respectively.
If FC win their two remaining home games, with a lot of luck, they could finish second in the league, improving on last season’s records, but regardless of the result of the matches, one thing is certain: come next season, Nippert Stadium will be full of Cincinnati and Ohio residents cheering on soccer in America’s soccer capital, right in the heart of football and baseball country.