My heart broke when Juninho missed the final penalty kick that gave FC Cincinnati the Open Cup win over the Chicago Fire. Juninho was a huge part of some of the best Galaxy teams I’d ever had the joy to watch. And God help me, I had been cheering against him.
So, FC Cincinnati should get a franchise slot and give Nippert Stadium another little nip and tuck to tide everyone over until they get United Dairy Farmers Stadium built. I think we’re all in agreement on that, except maybe San Diego’s mayor.
We hadn’t heard much about the actual FC Cincinnati players over the past two years, in our ongoing saga. Largely because they have been pretty much a fair-to-acceptable USL team. Mitch Hildebrandt is a very good keeper indeed – he showed why he is the reigning USL Goalkeeper of the Year. But I don’t think too many previous USL Goalkeepers of the Year had endorsement deals and T-shirts made of his likeness. That was the team marketing its best player whoever that happened to be. It could just as easily have been, for example, hometown kid Omar Cummings.
Out of the fourteen players who played against the Fire, ten had been drafted by MLS teams or spent time on MLS rosters. One of those is Austin Berry, a former MLS Rookie of the Year.
Out of the remaining five, one is a 33 year old former Millwall player, one is a 30 year old Danish refugee from OKC Energy, and two are career lower division players in their mid-20’s. (One of those two is Hildebrandt, who spent four years with the pre-MLS Minnesota before joining Cincinnati.) Then there’s Josu, the 24 year old Spanish midfielder who is listed at less than 150 lbs.
No one really talked about it too much, but when we talk about FC Cincinnati going to MLS? We didn’t really mean the players. By and large these weren’t men who had never gotten a fair shot, but tough journeymen looking for a second or third chance. Even in the now-legendary Hell is Real game, FCC was a lot more about counterattacking and lucky bounces and Crew incompetence than anything one might call pretty or inspiring.
The Chicago game, however, was (a) on national television and (b) one that Cincinnati should have won in regulation or in overtime, but for bad calls. Usually underdogs who are hard done by the referee go home with their grumbles unheard. I don’t know how many times out of ten Cincinnati would get a deserved win against the Chicago Fire, but it’s a lot more than one. After all, they were the better team, and technically didn’t even win, penalty kicks counting as ties in the official record and all that.
This was another turning point in the careers of FCC players, many of whom joined FCC on a downturn. Maybe most of them still won’t make it back to MLS, but more will than I would have thought.
Certain Alan Koch will. Koch is the fellow who replaced John Harkes after…well, whatever happened there happened. Koch, who I freely admit having never heard of before he replaced Harkes, has to look pretty good in comparison with…well, one hates to name names. Speaking of totally random facts, did you know Jay Heaps is the third longest-serving active coach in Major League Soccer right now? I love trivia.
This was also the national television debut of FC Cincinnati fans, and I have to think they passed whatever test one has for fans. (Mine is whether or not the fans cheer for big booming goal kicks, or for winning throw-ins.) I usually resist the idea that fans “make the difference,” but when both teams were out of gas, FCC had the psychological boost from the greater number of fans. Not that the cohort of Fire fans weren’t loud, and not that the Fire players weren’t inspired by them. I just think if the game is played in Bridgeview, Chicago wins ten times out of eight.
Sadly for Chicago, the game was played in Nippert Stadium, beloved local relic festooned with artificial turf. Which brings us back to the expansion race. I don’t think too many expansion candidates would last without already having shovels in the ground to replace such a thing. And I realize Cincinnati is not New York, and Nippert won’t get the Yankee Stadium exemption. But this season and this Open Cup run should give the Lindner ownership group the benefit of the doubt. They’ll get something built somewhere before 2022, don’t you think?
FC Cincinnati has done a masterful job of using local branding, marketing and media to build a solid franchise almost overnight. If a good deal of it seemed to have that fresh-from-the-boardroom ambience to it, it’s now something very real.
Allow me to give you an example. There was a slight concern that a concurrent Black Lives Matter demonstration would spoil the festivities. (I thought it was much more likely that Basti Schwiensteiger would. I’m glad I didn’t get around to making a prediction, because I had this marked down as a stomping for the Fire.) Long story short, all involved – demonstrators, fans, security – did their jobs admirably, and nothing even escalated verbally, let alone physically.
Obviously, BLM didn’t choose the time and place by chance. Of course, you might think. Sam DuBose was killed by a University of Cincinnati policeman, the demonstration took place on the University of Cincinnati campus. Where else were they going to hold it, the Grand Ole Opry?
Ah, but it turns out the time was chosen specifically for the FC Cincinnati game. And if you are thinking “Of course, there were going to be thirty thousand people there,” you and I have different expectations on how many people were going to show up to a midweek game that wasn’t on the schedule a week ago. Maybe I’m just looking at this whole thing weird, but Carl Lindner marketed his team well enough to get on the radar of Black Lives Matter. FC Cincinnati was officially announced a year and three days after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson – you’d think if one cultural force were going to influence the other, it would be reversed. And call it a wacky hunch, but I’m pretty sure that whoever Carl Lindner spent money on to gain publicity for FC Cincinnati, Black Lives Matter was fairly far down the list.
This is a little thing, and I wouldn’t bring it up if I weren’t fairly sure that you, dear reader who I genuinely love and I should tell you that more often, would connect with more than someone unfamiliar with American soccer supporters groups. The first order of business in preparing for the BLM demonstration? Even before pointing out who had first aid and water and “Don’t physically block anyone”?
And I thought, “Now this, this I know about.” Don’t go too loud too early, listen to what other people are doing, don’t do the same chant too often, try to sing through the chest, go low if you feel your voice cracking, and try to sing for all 90. (The demonstration, by the way, ended up going very close to an hour and a half. I’m telling you, the parallels are uncanny.)
The general public may think getting chants going is simply a matter of repeating what you hear. Anyone in a supporters group knows better. I couldn’t help but think that at the very moment BLM was practicing its chants, hundreds of others were doing the exact same thing.
It never occurred to me that if BLM organizers and supporters group leaders were to meet, one of the first things they might do is talk shop. There are so many smiliar things demonstrators and away support are concerned about. Preparing signs and chants. Outreach to new members. Getting new people engaged once they do show up. Winning over a perhaps skeptical public. Avoiding conflict with people who for whatever reason oppose the message.
Private security. Real police. Front offices. City Hall. Getting people back to the bus afterward, and trying to find something to eat.
Protesting is like being in a supporters group on hard mode.
Well, except for tifo. That’s more elaborate in soccer.