The second game of the three game tour of North America, the Eagles travel to the city of Cincinnati to take on the local side so we got in touch with Yosief Tzeghai to tell a little more about the club.
Q. Perhaps we can start with you telling us a little bit about FC Cincinnati?
A little more than a year ago news of a football club that would come to be known as FC Cincinnati (FCC)was leaked to the public. Fast forward to August 2015, the club was officially announced and we learned former United States international and Premier League star John Harkes would be coach. Even though this is the inaugural season for the club, it has garnered outstanding support from the city. FC Cincy plays home games at the Nippert Stadium which is an American football stadium for the University of Cincinnati and holds around 40,000. FCC has already set the attendance record of 23,375 for a United Soccer League (USL) game as well as averaging nearly 5,000 more fans than the club that has the second highest attendance. More importantly, FCC have been outstanding on the pitch, currently third in the division, and on pace to host a home play off match.
Q. Where does FCC currently sit in the US footballing pyramid?
FCC play in the USL which is considered to be the third tier of the pyramid. Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top tier and it is leaps and bounds ahead of the three tiers that follow. The North American Soccer League (NASL) is the second tier and it is closely followed by the USL. The National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) is the fourth tier and is essentially an amateur league. The USL has recently applied to become a second tier league, but must meet certain attendance, payroll, location and net worth figures to do so.
Q. Will the club make it to the MLS any time soon and if so, how would that happen?
The most common time table for elevation to the MLS that we have heard is three to five seasons, but as with most things in life money runs the world. Carl Lindner III is worth over $2 billion US dollars and an influential man in the city. The MLS is rapidly expanding and looking for clubs from the second and third tier to promote. FCC is currently in the pool of teams to be promoted, but the MLS looks for more than strong play on the field. They look for cities sustainable markets and teams with strong attendance rates. Attendance rates, as well as facilities and stadiums are a real strength for FCC and I believe that will push Cincinnati to the MLS sooner rather than later. The biggest challenge for the MLS is the proximity to Columbus, Ohio which is home to MLS side Crew. As the US is so expansive, the MLS may look to invite a team in a different region.
Q. Is it difficult for the club to be battling against more popular sports in the US with the likes of the Bengals (NFL) and Reds (MLB) nearby?
A: This was my initial fear when the team was announced. Reds games have directly conflicted with FCC matches and the club has maintained the outstanding support it normally gets. The NFL season won’t overlap the USL schedule much and the games a played on Sundays so that shouldn’t be a factor. In addition to MLB and the NFL we have college or university American football that begins in late August and it dominates Saturdays. With over 20,000 fans attending FCC matches regularly my doubts have disappeared.
Q. How has the season gone for FCC so far?
It has gone very well so far. Prior to Wednesdays match the club had an eleven match unbeaten streak and are currently third in the conference. Expansion sides typically struggle for two reasons – clubs must learn to play together and start from scratch and they sometimes struggle to find talent to compete in their inaugural season. General manager Jeff Berding has done an outstanding job assembling young talent along with proven veterans.
Q. Is football getting closer to challenging the likes of NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL or is there still some way to go?
While ‘soccer’ is not the most popular sport, it has been growing rapidly within the last few years. In Cincinnati, English Premier League pubs have developed that will open as early as 7:45 am which is when the early matches begin local time. The Euros have been crushing the ratings for MLB. FCC boasts the highest average attendance for a non-first division club in all sports. MLS averages routinely over NHL and does challenge several NBA teams in attendance.
Q. Many fans in the UK will recall John Harkes playing in English football. How has he done as head coach?
Harkes has done well with what has been a tough task. He was given a brand new roster of players that had not played together. As a USL squad, the team had less than two months to train together before the start of the season. He has slowly been adjusting the roster to find his best eighteen. He has also been fitting the formation to put his his best eleven players on the pitch at the same time but three key players were injured early in the season. Omar Cummings may have been starting at striker if he had not been injured early in pre-season, midfielder Eric Stevenson had been out of football for over a year due to hip surgery, and captain Austin Berry, a starting center back, suffered a quad injury early in the season. Despite all of this, Harkes has brought success to the team.
Q. Are there any Cincy players that we should look out for or any that you think would not look out of place in the Premier League?
To put it nicely, Premier League football is far superior to even the highest level of US soccer and I am confident none of our boys in blue would come close to that level. Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt has quickly become possibly the top player at his position in the USL. Midfielders Jimmy McLaughlin and Eric Stevenson have been in the best form of any offensive players on the field as of late. While striker Sean Okoli has been the team’s starting striker for every match this season, but perhaps the most recognisable player at the club is Omar Cummings. The Jamaican international was hampered by injuries for much of the early season, but as of late has been making an impact as a substitute.
Q. Any tips for any travelling Palace fans to the area on what to go and visit?
There are several supporters groups that will have pre-game festivities in various pubs near the Nippert Stadium and will be more than happy to have a drink or a meal with you before the game. The largest two groups are ‘Die Innenstadt’ who will be at Mecklenburg Gardens and ‘The Pride’ who will be at Brass Tap. Other than match day, a section of the city Over the Rhine has many great restaurants and pubs. The local baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, will be in town for the weekend and have a game Friday evening. If anyone has brought children Cincinnati Zoo is great for kids and is located very close to Nippert Stadium. A few minutes across the Ohio River downtown, the Newport Aquarium is another great venue. If you want a great authentic Cincinnati experience, visit Findlay Market. It was founded in 1852 and features a wide variety of local vendors, farmers, shops and restaurants.
Q. Please share with us any projects that you are currently working on or anything that you would like to promote.
I am part a group called Cincinnati Soccer Talk. We have a weekly podcast as well as a website with daily FCC content. We can be found at CincinnatiSoccerTalk.com as well as on Twitter, and Facebook. We look to be a great source for team content with a fans perspective. In August we are partnering with the club for a FootGolf tournament to raise money for local charity ‘Sports Games for Kids’. Our following has been amazing and we are very grateful that Cincinnati and its fans have responded to what we are doing.