By Glenn Crooks
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On April 9, the game-time temperature for FC Cincinnati’s inaugural home match against the Charlotte Independence was 39 degrees, dropping to the high 20s before the conclusion of the 2-1 victory for the home side.
“It was freezing cold and pouring down rain,” remarked John Harkes, FCC’s first head coach. What the former U.S. National Team captain experienced that day set the tone for one of the great American soccer stories in 2016.
A United Soccer League record 14,658 spectators poured into Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. The attendance figure on opening day turned out to be sparse in comparison to future home matches.
“I knew there would be a good following but, no, I certainly didn’t expect this,” Harkes said.
The expansion side set a league record, averaging 17,296, including four regular season crowds in excess of 20,000. FC Cincinnati broke its own league record when 24,376 entered the gates of Nippert for a 1-0 win over Orlando City B.
On Oct. 2, FCC hosted the Charleston Battery in the USL quarterfinals. A league playoff-record 30,187 looked on as Cincinnati was upended by the Battery on two set-piece goals, 2-1. While the result was disappointing, Harkes eventually reflected on a remarkable season and a relationship built between team and community.
“It reminded me of when we were selling MLS with D.C. United in ’96,” said Harkes, who led United to the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup as a player during the season that launched Major League Soccer. “We were doing appearances this year and the guys loved it. Both the fan base and the team were embracing each other. There are so many great areas to live and the community is proud of these guys. We see them wearing the jerseys because they are proud to be part of the club. It has been inspiring and motivational.”
More often than not, FC Cincinnati rewarded the record-breaking support, finishing third in the 14-team Eastern Conference. On Wednesday, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley declared Oct. 5 “FC Cincinnati Day” and on Thursday the club hosted a supporter’s salute at one of its pub partners, Moerlein Lager House.
“For me, it was a really enjoyable season,” said Harkes, the Kearny, New Jersey native who played youth soccer with fellow U.S. Hall of Fame members Tony Meola and Tab Ramos. “Everything was over our expectations. The game-day experience, the crowds that were showing up. Now our big challenge is to sustain it going forward.”
By exceeding expectations, FCC has stimulated more than a glance from the top tier league in the country. There will be a visit from MLS commissioner, Don Garber, in late November.
“It’s a big deal when he takes notice,” Harkes said. “It’s gratifying.”
MLS expansion possibilities have been well documented and it appears that FC Cincinnati has been placed in the stable of possible future franchises. With Minnesota and Atlanta joining in 2017 and LAFC in 2018, the league will be five shy of its intended target of 28 teams.
On Nov. 29, Cranley will give Garber a tour of the city, followed by a town hall format where Garber will express his vision for MLS and members of the community will be permitted to ask questions.
“From a club standpoint, it’s exciting,” Harkes said. “For our playoff, we were outdrawing every soccer sporting event in the country.”
FC Cincinnati’s average attendance figures exceed five current MLS franchises, including D.C. United.
“And there are players here already that can play in MLS,” Harkes said. “For one reason or another, they were looked over.”
Perhaps one day they will have the occasion to avenge those missed opportunities.
— Harkes worked as an assistant under his collegiate coach, Bruce Arena, with the New York Red Bulls in 2006-07. Arena is the current coach of the L.A. Galaxy and former U.S. National Team coach.
“When I got this job, I communicated with Bruce and Bob Bradley quite a bit,” said Harkes, a Hermann Trophy Award winner at the University of Virginia. “I wanted to be really prepared.”
Harkes was the first American to play in the English Premiere League and he can empathize with Bradley, who was recently named the head coach at Swansea City — the first American to coach an EPL side.
“I use to hear things like, ‘Go home and play baseball you Yankee, what are you doing here?’,” said Harkes, who played for Sheffield Wednesday from 1990-93. “Then they said, ‘Oh, he’s played in a World Cup?’”
Harkes also scored a goal from distance in a league match against Derby in his rookie season that earned “Goal of the Year” in England.
“But the old, stale clichés are there,” he said. “No matter how many times we beat them (England) or beat them in the group in the World Cup, it’s still the same. I want to say, ‘Have you looked at the results? The numbers don’t lie.’”
Bradley, despite years of preparing for this moment, including a successful stint with the USMNT, has been met with skepticism because he is American.
“Please don’t judge him by his accent,” pleaded Swansea’s owner, Jason Levien, who was addressing a unique Swansea fan base that has 21-percent ownership of the club.
Many of them were miffed that the supporters’ chairman was not consulted during the hiring process, while questioning whether Bradley was the proper choice ahead of favored son, Ryan Giggs.
“No one should underestimate Bob Bradley,” Harkes said. “His resume is incredible. He’s been in extremely difficult situations in Egypt and France and fought through the adversity. He’s a guy that loves what he’s doing. There are a lot of naysayers, but over time people are going to say, ‘He gets it.’”
— The Red Bulls and New York City FC are 1-2 atop the Eastern Conference standings. Both are idle from league play this weekend, although City is in Mexico for a friendly against the eighth-place team in Liga MX, Necaxa. The YES network will carry the match Friday at 9:30 p.m.
For all things futbol and NYCFC, please follow Glenn on Twitter at @GlennCrooks