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FC Cincinnati shows there is no limit to what American soccer can become

On Wednesday night, over 32,000 people showed up to watch a minor-league team play in a scarcely covered secondary competition. It was incredible.

If you’ve followed American soccer for more than a couple of years, you’ve already heard that the men’s club game is “ready to explode” or “never going to make it” several times over. You also likely know that both of these statements are nonsense; men’s club soccer in the United States has been slowly, but very steadily growing over the last two decades.

So as much as big-moment hyperbole should be avoided in American soccer, Wednesday night’s U.S. Open Cup match between FC Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire felt like one such moment. It’s now more obvious than ever that the “bad soccer market” is a completely outdated concept, and that there is no ceiling on what American club soccer can become.

FC Cincinnati has only existed for two years, and has only played soccer for 15 months. While local residents will tell you that Cincinnati was hungry for a well-run soccer team since well before that, FCC is — to everyone else — a great out-of-nowhere success story.

In only their second home game ever, FC Cincinnati set the USL attendance record when 20,497 showed up to watch them play Louisville City FC. They broke that record several more times, topping out at 30,187 for their playoff game. And they bettered that attendance mark for a competitive match again on Friday, against the Fire.

That’s the second-biggest attendance ever in U.S. Open Cup, bettered only by the crowd Seattle Sounders drew to the 2011 final. It’s the biggest attendance ever for a non-final, and even outdrew Seattle’s 2010 final crowd.

Cincinnati beat the Fire on penalties, by the way. The result isn’t the big story here, but it was a perfect cherry on top. Their goalkeeper, Mitch Hildebrandt, was incredible.

We have the U.S. Open Cup — the perfect vessel for stories like FC Cincinnati’s — to thank for bringing us this moment. Like other more famous cup competitions around the world, the U.S. Open Cup allows anyone to qualify and starts with amateur teams, then gradually introduces higher level teams with each round. Fourth-division teams face qualifiers in the first round, then second- and third-division teams enter, then MLS teams join the party in the fourth round, when only a handful of smaller teams remain.

Amateur teams very rarely make it far enough to face off against MLS sides, but Christos FC bucked the trend this season, beating two semi-pro sides and pro team Richmond Kickers to earn a matchup with D.C. United. The amateur squad named after a Baltimore liquor store did not beat the Black and Red, but they did score the opening goal of the game. The reactions of their friends and family produced one of the best sports videos you’re going to see this year.

But the U.S. Open Cup, as great as it is, hasn’t been given a big stage very often. Fan-produced cell phone videos are the only highlights we get from some matches. Advances in technology have let teams stream their games recently, and every pro team now has a media department that writes about every game, but fans relied on the incredible volunteers at to produce the only consistent and reliable information about the competition for nearly a decade.

Thankfully, U.S. Open Cup finals have been televised since 2009, and the semifinals even got some love last season. But the circumstances that got this Round of 16 game on TV are a bit weird, and very fortuitous. Because of the Florida Gators winning the College World Series in just two games, ESPN had an empty time slot to fill on Wednesday night. Thankfully for soccer fans, they chose FCC vs. Fire.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Chicago Fire at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The game was a great advertisement for the sport and the U.S. Open Cup. Bastian Schweinsteiger started, played 120 minutes, and played hard for the entire match. Cincinnati’s notoriously raucous fans were nervous to start the match, almost sitting on their hands, watching their team endure wave after attacking wave from the Fire over the first half hour.

But with each minute they kept the game scoreless, FC Cincinnati’s players got a bit more confident. By the end of the half, they were putting together counter attacks, and their crowd started to wake up.

In the second half, Cincinnati manager Alan Koch made attacking substitutions. They paid off. The fans got gradually louder, singing throughout the second half, rising out of their seats during every attack and cheering as loud as they could for every great defensive play. Chicago goalkeeper Matt Lampson had to be excellent to send the game to penalties, making eight saves, including one in the 120th minute. He was matched by Hildebrandt — last season’s USL goalkeeper of the year — who made nine stops.

Then, the penalties, and those three saves by Hildebrandt. FCC’s big supporters’ section, The Bailey, was so incredibly happy. (via @KICK)

One of the best moments of the night — Hildebrandt leading a cheer of The Bailey — happened after the TV cameras were turned off and was captured by the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Charlie Hatch.

You might wonder what’s next for FC Cincinnati, and that’s an impossible question to answer. They’ll face fellow second-division side Miami FC — shoutout to them for beating Atlanta United, by the way — in the quarterfinal. As unlikely as it sounds, a second-division team might win the U.S. Open Cup for the first time since the Rochester Rhinos pulled off the feat in 1999.

Cincinnati is one of the cities bidding for an MLS expansion team, and due to the fan and footballing infrastructure they’ve built, popular opinion is that they deserve one. MLS commissioner Don Garber has visited Cincinnati and was impressed. But MLS appears to be more concerned with media markets than current fan engagement — NYCFC was granted an expansion franchise despite having no plan to move out of a baseball stadium ill-suited for soccer. It’s very possible that Cincinnati loses out to a bigger media market like Detroit, even though soccer fans there are telling MLS to get lost.

It is at this point that a certain segment of fans feel that I am morally obligated to bring up promotion and relegation, a system of organizing soccer leagues in which performance on the field dictates who has first-division status and teams can move up and down between leagues depending on how well they play.

Pro/rel works in most countries, and it would be very cool to see how it might work in America. But it is — and I’ll let you decide for yourself if this is right or wrong — not coming to the United States as long as Sunil Gulati or anyone who shares his views on the business of soccer is president of the United States Soccer Federation. MLS and USSF are currently very tight and lucrative partners. MLS will not submit voluntarily to pro/rel, and USSF currently has no interest in making MLS angry for the sake of adhering to a standard of fairness held by many, but not a truly overwhelming majority, of American soccer fans. FC Cincinnati will not have a chance to win promotion to the first division in the next decade.

So you can choose to take an LOL NOTHING MATTERS attitude about what Wednesday night meant for FCC and American soccer if you really want to. It’s possible that the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 getting on ESPN was a one-time thing that will never be repeated, that FCC will be shut out of MLS expansion, that no form of pro/rel ever comes, and that this goes down as the best moment in FC Cincinnati’s history. But I see Wednesday night differently.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Chicago Fire at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

FC Cincinnati’s victory over the Chicago Fire and all of the circumstances surrounding it showed us what’s possible for American soccer. There are huge, passionate crowds outside of the first division and games involving famous international teams. There is not something inherently different about Cascadia that cannot be replicated in other markets. With a smart owner and a dedicated supporters’ group, you can create something like FC Cincinnati in your city. Wednesday night was a big chunk of evidence that we can have an American soccer landscape with great players, big sold-out stadiums, and incredible moments on national TV for every club.

American soccer fans all want roughly the same things, even if we disagree about the best way to make them happen. But now we know anything is possible. We don’t have to dream anymore.