Our City is a weekly column devoted to the culture surrounding Orlando City, Major League Soccer, and U.S. soccer in general.
Did you catch the excitement this week from Cincinnati? The USL club took on the high-flying Chicago Fire this past Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup. After a hard-fought match, it was FC Cincinnati that came out on top during a dramatic penalty shootout. This all came in front of a massive crowd of over 32,000 and a national TV audience on ESPN.
Watching from Orlando, I couldn’t help but find myself rooting for the second division club to pull off the upset. Sure, the Fire had blasted Orlando City just a few days earlier, so it was a bit of spite. Still, my admiration for Cincinnati was rooted in something different. Having supported Orlando City since the club’s earliest days, I always feel a bit of solidarity with lower division clubs that have a passionate following. Teams like Sacramento Republic FC and Detroit City FC have always caught my eye.
Part of it is just the soccer fan inside me. I love seeing new pockets of fans rising up out of the grassroots to support new clubs. With so many empty seats at MLS games, it is refreshing to see a club filling the stands. USL (and NASL) give young players a place to live their dreams of playing professional soccer, a chance to hone their craft, or for a veteran player with a love of the game to keep a career going for a while longer. Lower league soccer clubs finding popularity is only a huge positive for the game in United States.
That popularity, inevitably, leads to fans, owners, and MLS to start wondering how that team would fit into the top league in the country. The potential to make the jump even drives some of the team’s popularity, as fans are inclined to join up with a club going places. While I think a team like FC Cincinnati or Sacramento Republic FC would be fantastic additions to the league, I’d tell any supporter of them to enjoy these moments.
While I’ve loved the MLS experience in Orlando, I’m still forever nostalgic for those early seasons. Maybe it is a bit of snobbery, the same way I prefer to shop at locally owned stores and only like your favorite band’s first record before they became popular. There was something about the USL Orlando City that felt effortless; something that felt authentic. Ample parking, affordable tickets, and always room to bring a friend. Post-game social media banter was just friends and friends-of-friends with some good perspectives, a little hope for the next game, and excitement about a new young signing.
MLS Orlando City has become complicated. Not that it isn’t fun, it is just different. Game days aren’t as magical as they used to be. The club’s culture feels distant from the fans now. Growing pains I’d imagine, but disappointing nonetheless. Maybe that’s why I watched with such excitement for FC Cincinnati this past week, knowing they are living those days we had. Anytime we punched above our weight it felt monumental, be that beating Newcastle United in a friendly or Colorado Rapids in the Open Cup. The players were accessible, be it in the parking lot before a game, on the field after the game, or just sending you a “like” on a social media post. Every game was a party.
If you count yourself among those loyal to FC Cincinnati, or a host of other great lower league teams trying to break through to MLS, I wish you the best of luck. Your teams, your supporters, and your passion will find a place in the league and make it better. Just don’t forget to enjoy these days - the times you fall asleep in your jersey with chants still ringing in your ears because you don’t want the night to end. I promise you, they are special.