I've followed soccer and local Cincinnati soccer for a while now. I was at the inaugural games for Cincinnati Saints and Dutch Lions. Neither of those things, even meeting Balon d'Or winner Ruud Gullit at CDL's opener, could have prepared me for last Saturday at Nippert.
I tried to get as much of the experience as possible so I started the night out meeting with Die Innenstadt at Rhinegeist where the main colors in the room were orange and blue. My rough count was about 150 who could be identified in the team's colors. I then met up with The Pride over at the Brass Tap where it was standing room only and in reality someone should have alerted the fire marshal. An hour before kickoff Die Innenstadt made the 30 minute trek up Ohio Ave, stopping in the middle for more libations, until they met up with The Pride in Clifton. After letting of a couple smoke bombs, the combined groups made their triumphal entrance into the stadium.
The game itself was more than exciting. With the attacking style of football that Coach Harkes likes to play, there was no fear of the dreaded nil-nil happening. The quote from his radio show earlier in the week was, "winning the game is more important (than letting in a late goal)... the bigger concern is creating at the opposite end" and that was on display.
I spent the first half in the Bailey, soaking in the raucous environment, the smoke, the flags. It felt just like the Nordecke. The majority of the fans in the whole stadium spent the entire match standing (although the cold, metal bleachers had a role in that). The first goal, a Sports Center top 10 scissor kick by Okoli, didn't take long, coming in the 5th minute. At that point everyone in the stadium completely lost it (and there's a bleacher that can attest to that). I'll definitely treasure the memory of being in the Bailey when the first goal was scored at Nippert Stadium.
FC Cincy dominated the midfield and controlled the game except for a spell in the second half. Hometown captain Austin Berry grabbed the second goal of the night with a diving header that had shades of Robin Van Persie's dolphin goal in the World Cup. The old soccer maxim that you're most vulnerable in the excitement right after you score was proved true as Charlotte almost immediately kept Mitch from a clean sheet. The final result, 2-1 for the home team.
Harkes and every player after the game praised the fans, "It's not even the number of fans - it's how loud they were, and how educated they are... it's just a great environment... The people are dying for this to happen here in Cincinnati." and I echo those sentiments. In the test match against University of Dayton on the Tuesday before the opener, the crowd proved that they weren't just Reds fans in disguise. One of the Dayton players dove and then got up and pushed a FCC player. For the rest of the game, anytime Dayton's #5 touched the ball, he was met with a chorus of boos. The fans carried that same passion and intelligence to the game against Charlotte, cheering and jeering at the right times, culminating in the 88th minute whole stadium cheer of "FCC, FCC." It was an amazing feeling.
Before the game the club had thrown around the 11,000 number but seeing it in person was mind-boggling to me. Having been to a lot of Saints and Dutch Lions games before, I didn't believe that there were that many soccer fans in this town and when I spoke to the club, they were just as blown away by the city's response. The walk up ticket sales, merchandise, and beer stands weren't able to keep up. The over 14,000 fans is the current record for the USL this season and that was with temperatures in the 30s. Next week's match against Louisville, FCC's biggest rivals, is currently forecasted to be in the low 70s and sunny, perfect soccer weather. A member of the front office told me that they expect to see anywhere from 1500 to 2000 make the trek up I-71 for the inaugural River Cities Cup. All these things added to the great exposure on national and local media from the opener should see that attendance record immediately surpassed.
I have at times been rather critical of the club. Some of their early missteps had me worried about the viability of this project and I have seen people not respond to soccer clubs before. This is different and the potential is unique in the lower leagues of US Soccer. To disagree with Alexi Lalas, being at Nippert worked and provides the potential to have MLS level attendance. While it's only the first home game, this milestone speaks for itself. If you were there on Saturday night, you would have felt that this city is changed but what the club, the SGs, and the people of Cincinnati were able to accomplish.