Portland’s visit stirs memories of FCC’s hot MLS home debut 

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Jeff Berding is all about moving forward, of course. The FC Cincinnati co-CEO has a team on the rise, yet much still to accomplish. A playoff berth and one playoff win in 2022, following three quite trying seasons, are not laurels plush enough to rest upon. Nor is the team’s 5-1-2 start to 2023, good as it is for a points deadlock (at 17) with New England atop the MLS Eastern Conference. It’s still only April, after all.

But this week, as FCC await only the second visit of the Portland Timbers to Cincinnati, Berding allotted a few minutes to look back. As veteran FCC fans likely recall, Portland was the foe in the first MLS home game for the Orange and Blue. The date was March 17, 2019, the site was Nippert Stadium, and though the result did not prove a harbinger of first-season brilliance, it was one huge hoot at the moment.

“I can tell you all three goals right now,” Berding said of FCC’s 3-0 dismissal of a Timbers side that had reached the 2018 MLS Cup Final. “(Defender) Kendall Waston gets the header off a set piece, (midfielder) Allan Cruz with a backheel, and (defender) Mathieu Deplagne with the right foot off a cross. Cruz’s backheel, in particular, was a really terrific goal.”

Then there was the clean sheet for keeper Spencer Richey.

”And it wasn’t just Spencer,” Berding says. ”We were strong all night. Never gave them much chance. We showed a lot of fight.”

On a seasonably cool Sunday (51 degrees and cloudy), a crowd of 32,250 packed Nippert, the University of Cincinnati’s historic football home, for a 5 p.m. kickoff. The crowd size wasn’t a shock, given the remarkable gate success of FCC’s United Soccer League clubs from 2016-18. Seldom if ever has a minor league team drawn such support in a major league city.

But still there was an undercurrent of giddy disbelief when referee Ismail Elfath’s full-time whistle sounded, because FCC had pulled off this night after a frantic rush to get ready. The match came a bare nine months after MLS officially granted the franchise. For contrast, consider that St. Louis City SC didn’t play a game for four years after getting its MLS call.

“It was the quickest introduction into MLS that has ever happened, and to be fair, I’m sure I had an alcoholic beverage or two that night,” Berding said. “After I went down to congratulate the players, I went up with my family, and with Dan McNally and Jeff Smith, the two guys who have been with me since Day One.”

McNally continues today as Vice President of Soccer Operations, and Smith remains stalwart as Senior Vice-President of Sales.

“They were with me at my kitchen table in 2015, planning the birth of FC Cincinnati,” Berding said. “Dan had been employee No. 1 and Jeff was employee No. 2. It was great to have a cold one and celebrate with them.”

A bit later that evening, another celebration took place. This one was at the Oakley home of Nick Hagglund, the Cincinnati native (Lakota West High School, Xavier University) who in 2019 was in the first of what is now five stalwart seasons as an FCC defender, following five years with Toronto.

“There were probably 200 people I knew in that crowd,” recalled Hagglund, whose 102 FCC matches played is the franchise record. “It was just a cool, cool experience to be a part of it all. The Bailey was already going crazy when we stepped out for warmups. I remember they had to delay the start a few minutes because there was too much orange smoke in the air. It was great to contribute to a clean sheet – they didn’t really test us much after a little pressure at the beginning – and then my family and my wife’s family came back with us to our house.

“We just had some pizza and hung out, but it was just a great moment for all of us to be together that night.”

Hagglund is one of only two current FCC players who were on the club that night. The other, defender Alvas Powell, does not have the Cincinnati roots of Berding or Hagglund.

But he has strong memories nonetheless.

“I remember saying to my wife after the match, ‘Where does so much fever come from?’ ” Powell said. “Because just being in Cincinnati before that, driving to the grocery store or whatever, you saw nobody really looking like a fan. But they were cheering the whole 90 minutes. Just great fans.”

Powell, a native Jamaican now in his 11th MLS season, had been traded to FCC after playing from 2013-18 for …


“It was a good feeling playing against my old team and having everything go so well,” said Powell, who left FCC for Miami (2020) and Philadelphia (2021) before returning to the Orange and Blue last year. “I got traded (by Portland), but we got the three points. Of course you want three always, but I was especially happy with that three.”

The result left the fledgling Orange and Blue with a 1-1-1 record. Though beaten soundly (4-1) at Seattle in their inaugural game, they had rebounded to earn a 1-1 draw at defending league champion Atlanta in match two.

“We felt OK facing Portland,” Hagglund said. “We’d had one bad result but then a tie most people hadn’t expected we could get. We were kind of nervous at the start, because Portland was expected to be very good again. But once we scored (Waston in the 15th minute), it was kind of easy going, almost like cruise control. I think they (Timbers) were surprised by the crowd and the enthusiasm and with the damage we were able to do.”

Even-keel in the table persisted a bit longer for the newcomers. After a win at New England, a home loss to powerful Philadelphia and a home draw with Kansas City, the Orange and Blue were at 2-2-2. But then came five straight losses, with no goals scored, and the season was on its way to a 6-22-6 finish. The next two campaigns were serious struggles as well before FCC righted itself last season, with a playoff berth and a playoff win at Red Bulls. So it’s unsurprising that when asked whether the Portland win now seems like “just yesterday” or “a long time ago,” Berding and Hagglund both unhesitatingly chose the latter.

“Think about all that’s happened since that game,” Berding said. “The year prior, we had been in the USL, and due to the short transition time, we started with what effectively was our USL soccer leadership. (Head coach Alan Koch, who had some success as FCC’s USL coach, was relieved of his duties with the MLS squad at 2-7-2.) We’d had no real time to learn the MLS, to understand the league. Then there was a global pandemic, a big interruption to things and people working from home.

“And yet we got a stadium (TQL) built, certainly one of the best in the world, and now we’ve completely rebooted our soccer leadership (with general manager Chris Albright and coach Pat Noonan, both hired for 2022), and we’re feeling like we’re in a really good spot.”

“It seems like forever,” said Hagglund. “We’re not in that stadium anymore, and even though we trained on these pitches (at Mercy Health Training Center in Milford), there was no beautiful facility like there is now. There was an old brick schoolhouse, out near the street where there’s just grass now, and that building housed a front office, our locker room and a little kitchen with one staff guy. He’d come once a week, maybe cook us breakfast.”

Now the players get gourmet breakfast and lunch every day.

“’I’ve probably seen 100 players come through here,” Hagglund continued, “and three or four coaching staffs. Everything is so way different than it was back then.”

Even so, that Portland game is worth a pause for this week for some memories.

“You can’t help but have a level of regret that we did not prove to be set up to sustain the success of that night,” Berding said. “We had some lessons to learn through suffering. But we did learn them. The state of our team now shows that.

“But that one night,” Berding concluded, “our expectations were met. We had a sellout crowd and played a terrific game, and our fans loved it. It felt really good.

“Overall, it was one fun experience.”