Miami FC and FC Cincinnati have a chance to continue their cup run at the other’s expense. Afterward, the winner will have a chance to keep moving forward.
The darlings of the US Open Cup are all set to face each other, again, for a chance to keep their run alive. Their previous meeting was rescheduled for this evening, August 2, after inclement weather kept them from squaring off a few weeks ago (check out our preview here). The rescheduling has become a big advantage for FC Cincinnati, who were able to get their stellar defense healthy. That defense has yet to give up a goal in Open Cup play, including matches against the Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew.
The match is sure to be entertaining, the story lines abundant, but one thing is certain, the winner will move onto the next round to face New York Red Bulls for a chance to go the Open Cup Final. A lower division team hasn’t made the semis since Richmond Kickers in 2011, and no lower division side has won the cup since the Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1999. For two teams outside of Major League Soccer, both of whom have a short history, one of them will have to chance to add their names to that list and build on their impressive resumes as they look to angle themselves for an uncertain future outside of the USSF top division.
Winning the competition would be quite the feat for either side and could be what they need to keep their successes trending upward in an uncertain, and ever changing American soccer landscape.
Both Miami FC and FC Cincinnati had made waves before their respective runs through the domestic cup. Both teams began play in 2016, Miami in NASL and Cincy in USL, and both of them took their leagues by storm in a particular way. Miami came in surrounded by impressive signing rumors, most of which never came to fruition, then made headlines as they paid hefty salaries and transfer fees for notable NASL veterans following their disappointing start. Their increased spending has played a role in their NASL success this year, as they dominated the Spring Season.
FC Cincinnati, on the other hand, exploded onto the scene with impressive attendance figures from day one. Playing at Nippert Stadium, home of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, FCC set several USL attendance records, including the highest ever season average of 17,296 attendance per match. That figure was higher than five MLS sides, including in-state rivals, Columbus Crew SC. Through 2017, they’re already on track to break that with average attendance over 20,000.
Both clubs have used their 2016 success as a springboard for 2017, but for those who have been following both USL and NASL in recent years, there is a sense of déjà vu for the two upstarts. Cincinnati are trying to build momentum for their upcoming MLS bid, while Miami FC owner, Riccardo Silva, has made headlines recently with a $4-billion, promotion and relegation inclusive, media deal for MLS, along with rumors of him joining David Beckham’s MLS Miami bid.
The two club’s don’t need to look far for cautionary tales that temper their expectations. Their respective rises have echoed those of the New York Cosmos and Sacramento Republic, both of whom have already taken the path their league mates are currently on.
For FCC, the story isn’t necessarily negative, just that of expectations. The Republic built their legacy on high attendance from the very beginning, setting USL records that have since been broken by FCC. In their inaugural season, they won the USL title, something that has eluded FC Cincinnati, and they have operated at near sell-out capacity now into their fourth season.
Things have otherwise stagnated. Sacramento made their deepest Open Cup run to date this year, upsetting Real Salt Lake 4-1 in impressive fashion, but later lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy on two quick goals to start the second half. A second USL Cup has stayed out of reach, and most importantly, there are still several questions surrounding their MLS future. Something that many considered a given after their strong first season.
With USSF Division 2 and 3 titles not leading to a qualification in additional competition, Sacramento is left trying to reach heights they’ve already accomplished. The foreseeable future looks like it won’t be any different for a while. The precursor to USL success before Sacramento was Orlando City SC, who had their attendance records broken by Sacramento, which was set in the four seasons before they made the jump to MLS. Two of those seasons ended in league titles. Orlando City was able to use their USL success both on and off the field to jump to the top division, something that has yet to be guaranteed for Sacramento or Cincinnati.
Twice in a Lifetime
The New York Cosmos came to the NASL guns blazing, using their historic name to attract some international stars into the USSF second division. Most notably with Spanish legend Raúl, the Cosmos also acquired the services of long time Villarreal captain Marcos Senna, Croatian midfielder Niko Kranjcar, and all-time Venezuelan National Team cap and goal leader Juan Arango. They were surrounded by a slew of European journeymen, former MLS regulars, and NASL standouts as the Cosmos won the NASL title in three of their four seasons.
Their impressive league success brought with it feelings of apathy as time went on. Especially when the top NASL teams they had been competing against either folded or changed leagues. The Open Cup presented them with an opportunity to test themselves against MLS competition, and talk of an Open Cup run and subsequent Champions League bid was presented as something that would help them regain their international prestige of old. The Cosmos were able to prove themselves against their neighbors NYCFC and New York Red Bulls, winning three of the four meetings between them, but have yet to make it past the Round of 16.
Their heavy spending caught up with them quickly, as it was revealed they were losing upwards of $8 million -10 million on average, per season. A failure to make a cup run also hurt their chances of building a permanent home, as their attendance continued to drop from season to season.
This offseason, the club faced an eleventh hour sale to keep them alive, and it seems they have dialed back their poor spending habits while trying to increase profits and success off the field, but an Open Cup run still remains nothing but a dream, as this year they were upset by amateur side Reading United AC. The Cosmos will now try to earn their fourth title in five seasons (something that looks like only Miami FC will be able to stop), until next year when they can try for a cup run again.
Domestic Champs and a Champions League Bid
Winning the cup will be a major success for either Miami FC or FC Cincinnati. As previously noted, the last lower division side to do so were the Rochester Rhinos, who may be the most cautionary tale yet. Rochester in the 90’s was the combination of both clubs, setting attendance records while competing at a high level on the field by offering competitive pay.
Despite building a new soccer specific stadium, Rochester never moved on from the lower division, and once the glitz and glamor went away from their early success, they found themselves struggling to keep the club playing at all in more recent years.
Could the fate of Miami and Cincinnati be the same? Maybe. Part of Rochester’s struggles stem from Rochester being a smaller market, especially compared to Cincinnati and Miami, as well as an owner who reached the breaking point financially, something that also seems unlikely for Miami and Cincy’s billionaire ownership groups.
However, the threat of having to sit outside the US’s top flight league for the foreseeable future remains looming. Cincinnati has a bid in place to join the MLS ranks, and with Miami, we’ll see if rumors surrounding Riccardo Silva joining forces with Beckham United or his willingness to invest into the NASL until it becomes top-flight itself, have any legs. Until then, both clubs will have to deal with the additional pressures of being a top performing club outside of MLS.
In the meantime, a chance declare themselves the top club in the US and to play in international competition, CONCACAF Champions League, next season provides a nice stop-gap. While no US side has ever won the competition, having a chance to host and visit the top teams in the region would be a second injection of excitement for the respective fan bases. The teams would be able to add a Champions League appearance into their season, along with the Open Cup and regular league play, something that will add to their short-term momentum. For a spender like Silva, it could also provide for justification in splashing even more on the roster in an attempt to be the first US club to win the competition.
None of their peers have had a chance to enter the international competition. Both Real Salt Lake and Montreal Impact, less popular first division teams, saw an increase in support as their Champions League runs saw them make the finals, both losing in heartbreaking fashion on the last day. Such rallied support from the whole country would be able to help both clubs handle the uncertainties of the lower divisions.
For now, they have to face each other, then get past the New York Red Bulls and either Sporting Kansas City or the San Jose Earthquakes in the final. Both clubs have taken out some giants on their way to this point, and seeing either club lift the cup isn’t unthinkable. As the adage goes, it’s best not to count chickens before they hatch, but with a concerning history surrounding their peers, it’s hard not to look too far ahead.