IN THE BLUE CORNER: Your Cincinnati Saints. Longtime readers will remember them as my new home team. A model of slow-growth grassroots soccer, building a fanbase in one of the most soccer-skeptical, sports-saturated cities in - well, for all I know, the world. They have made laudable progress in their five years so far, and thanks to their supporters group put on a very enjoyable show. Their temporary home stadium last year was a picturesque, but inappropriate, crowned high-school FieldTurf gridiron field.
IN THE ORANGE CORNER: Your, or least somebody's, FC Cincinnati. Literally everything you read about them at Wrong Side of the Pond turned out to be depressingly accurate, right down to John Harkes as coach. D.J. and Jeremy haven't come right out and confirmed that this is a roided-up version of the utterly anonymous Cincinnati Dutch Lions, but, in the words of Jose Ortega y Gasset, c'mon. Jack Wyant, one of the owners, has the Dutch Lions on the bio web page of the venture capital firm he founded.
FC Cincinnati is backed by a group that would not look out of place at an MLS owners' meeting. Carl Lindner III does not yet rate his own Wikipedia entry like his late father, but that, and a quick perusal of some of the son's other companies, should give you a sense of the kind of dollars FCC has at their command. The press conference was held, by the way, at the University of Cincinnati's Lindner Center. The other owners listed on the site boast some economic weight themselves. Financing an MLS team, let alone a USL team, will not be a huge deal.
Helping these rich and powerful men navigate the Cincinnati sports landscape is - there's no nice way to put this - one of the great unsung villains of American sports. Future generations of economists and city managers will study the Paul Brown Stadium deal, an exemplary model of how a sports franchise can screw over the public. Jeff Berding was chairman of the Cincinnati Bengals' committee to help pass the sales tax that funded the stadium. He recently left the Bengals after rather more than a decade (a tenure distinguished by serving on the Cincinnati City Council while keeping his Bengals job) to join FC Cincinnati. One does not lightly leave a long-time NFL gig to join an obscure soccer entity.
Oh. Never mind, maybe one does.
FC Cincinnati isn't the first time the USL has tried to elbow into another team's alleged turf, but this is a little more seriously intended than VSI Tampa Bay. While in recent times MLS has featured heartwarming stories of little teams making it big, the origins of Major League Soccer is the story of the burial of older, smaller teams. The LA Salsa helpfully died before MLS kicked off. The owner of the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks bought into the Clash, then sold out. The Columbus Xoggz were a joke. The Colorado Foxes, though, were APSL royalty. Yet the Rapids - as you might have gathered - brushed them aside. Later, the Utah Blitzz surrendered to Real Salt Lake.
So, it looks pretty bad for the Saints right now. The countervailing success stories of smaller teams moving up are stories of the kind of huge influx of investment that has now poured into FC Cincinnati. Minnesota United is the most hopeful example - but Zygi Wilf was even more detestably evil than Berding could hope to be, and Minnesota United had its own rich guy with, shall we say, familiarity with the Securities and Exchange Commission - and also rich guys in the region's other pro sports. The Saints have yet to attract that. And given FC Cincinnati's close ties with former employees of the Reds and Bengals, it might take the Saints a while yet.
By the way, what FC Cincinnati is doing is not a crime. They see a market, and they want in. That's just good old fashioned business hardball. FC Cincinnati doesn't need, or doesn't feel they need, the existing Saints fan base to succeed. Those of you who watched the introductory video will have noticed the Saints logo whooshing by after a slew of former, defunct franchises. There was no reason to do that, aside from gloating. It's the Dutch version of Adios Soccer, Futbol es Aqui, set on the banks of the Ohio.
And the Saints aren't owed anything. They should be judged on what they provide and how they provide it. It's the US national teams, not the NPSL, that has spurred soccer interest around these parts, and the Saints don't have a right to call dibs.
As we've seen based on history, the prognosis is poor. But the Saints aren't the Xoggz. "Authenticity" is a dirty, dirty word in American soccer these days, but wherever you would draw the line or define such a thing, the Saints would qualify. That's what they'll have to keep doing - and that's good, because that was always their business model. They would have had to fight for undecided soccer fans anyway.
I seem like a biased source at this point, but I wasn't born biased. As a recent transplant here, there's no reason I couldn't have been won over by the USL team. Yet FC Cincinnati seems to have been custom-built to annoy the living hell out of me. That stupid, unimaginative, uncreative, patronizing name and logo. Calling it a "futbol club" on the splash page. John Harkes, the two-faced snake of 1998. I mentioned Berding, of course. The belittling of existing fans. The American Outlaws being cheerfully co-opted. Season ticket prices I consider, as a dedicated cheapskate, to be unreasonable. The fodder they've already provided - after mere hours! - for American soccer-hating dipstick Billy Haisley (on Deadspin; I'll link Haisley when I'm dead).
Some of these are just my pet peeves. Some of these, though, are serious, avoidable missteps. Great for the Saints, right? Except, well...how do you cheer for FC Cincinnati to fail, but for soccer to succeed?
I would respond in a couple of ways. First, FCC clearly do not consider the Saints an obstacle - and they're probably right. A properly marketed team attracting new fans won't regard the Saints anymore than Toronto FC needed to worry about jilted Lynx fans. If FCC does a Sacramento, the Saints won't even be a speed bump. And if that happens, congratulations to them.
If FCC does turn out to be Chivas Cincinnati, however, then the best possible scenario for the sport would be an existing, surviving alternative. That MLS team might not come in the next couple of years, or the next five years, or even the next ten years. Cleveland still hasn't gotten the MLS team announced in 2004. And there's absolutely no guarantee that the plutocracy behind FCC signed up for indefinite USL status. Saints or no Saints, if other cities keep Cincinnati out of MLS - and I can think of at least a half dozen ahead in the queue right now - then we're looking at testing the patience of rich old men. Not everyone is a Phil Anschutz, when it comes to putting up with crap from a disappointing soccer league.
The worst scenario would be for FCC to blow out the Saints, THEN fold. Saints fans, and future Saints fans, need apologize for nothing. (In fairness, neither do FCC fans. It's not the easiest thing in the world to follow, or even hear of, an NPSL franchise, and if this the first Cincinnati team people have ever heard of, well, that's not necessarily their fault.)
Down the road, of course, I might have to come to terms with supporting an FC Cincinnati MLS franchise. My current plan is to buy a season ticket to boo them, while wearing Galaxy and/or Crew gear.
As of this writing, the Lady Saints are unopposed.
UPDATE: Berding was on local sports radio later that afternoon with Mo Egger, which you may listen to here. Or not, as your destiny takes you. May I regale you with my summary and reactions? Why, thank you.
Damn near word one out of Berding's mouth was a snipe at the idea of a professional team playing in a high school stadium. Ironists will note the next few minutes were a celebration of FCC's future home, the UC Bearcats football stadium. FCC will paint over the football lines on the artificial turf. Nippert seems to be a popular facility around these parts, so it's very unlikely any local fan would be alienated.
It was confirmed that MLS is the endgame here, to the shock of no one. Berding of all people on Earth know that another publicly financed stadium is utterly out of the question. So either the ownership group will build their own private playpen with their own private money, or MLS will just have to show the same sense of humor towards ground-sharing as they do with Seattle and NYCFC.
The team will get players from "all over the world" and from MLS rosters, so young players can get playing time. So don't expect any deep US Open Cup runs from the USL.
The MLS target obscured how the team will draw in the short term. I'm still skeptical about the tolerance of the market to a minor league team. Sacramento Republic attendance totals will draw continued media attention, but Cincinnati Cyclones attendances won't.