The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup holds a special place in the heart of FC Cincinnati and their supporters.
It points to an essential moment in the history of the club, and a turning point in their push towards being awarded a Major League Soccer franchise.
Through five matches over the course of the 2017 season, FC Cincinnati marched their way through the country’s oldest soccer tournament dating back to 1914, and against all odds, earned a spot in the semifinals.
By defeating two MLS sides along the way as a USL club and drawing record attendances, FCC showed the nation and the soccer world that Cincinnati, Ohio was a Major League Soccer city.
“It was just our second year as a club and our run to the semifinals had an enormous impact on building brand equity in this community,” FC Cincinnati co-CEO Jeff Berding said in regards to the impact that the 2017 U.S. Open Cup had on FCC’s culture. “Our matches were the place to be, where magical things happened.
“And it wasn't just that we were beating MLS teams, it's that we were beating them in front of more than 30,000 people a night.”
Everything came together on August 16, 2017, as a sold-out crowd of 33,250 gathered at Nippert Stadium to support FC Cincinnati against New York Red Bulls, a record-setting total at the time. In three home matches against MLS competition, FCC’s Open Cup run tallied over 97,000 spectators.
Berding still recalls the run with a deep love, and can readily recite the highlights and cheers that accompanied his club's historic run, calling these moments the “Lore” of FC Cincinnati.
‘Mitch says no!’ is the first chant that comes to mind for Berding, referring to FCC goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt, who made three penalty kick saves in FCC’s shootout upset over Chicago Fire FC. On his desk sits a photo from the match with the Columbus Crew – where FC Cincinnati played and defeated their in-state rivals for the first time – in which Berding proudly has his scarf raised above his head reading ‘Hell is Real.’ It’s a rivalry that has defined both clubs' status and become one of the hottest in MLS since that first match.
While the fairytale run ended with a 3-2 loss in added time against the New York Red Bulls in the semifinals, the carriage did not turn into a pumpkin. Far from it. The path to MLS was never more alive than at that moment.
“What we had built in those two years had become undeniable to MLS,” FC Cincinnati vice president of soccer operations Dan McNally recalled. “I knew there was no way they could turn us down after what we created that night. I would argue that this was the day that MLS basically realized that this has to happen.”
McNally was the first employee of the club after being hired by Berding in the earliest days of FC Cincinnati’s foundation, and has been responsible for the creation and operation of just about every facet of the organization since planning began in 2015. For two months, McNally was the only full-time employee, going to coffee shops around Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky to work on his laptop.
For every win, loss and draw on or off the field, McNally has been there. He also owns the prestigious record of having been to every FC Cincinnati home match – first or second team – in the club's history.
Now FC Cincinnati are back in the semifinals in 2023, knocking on the door of their first trophy since joining MLS.
“Everything in the lead up to the 2017 Open Cup was kind of wild, kind of crazy and beautiful,” McNally remembered.
But a lot has changed in the six years since FC Cincinnati took the Red Bulls to extra time in the semifinals. FCC are no longer the underdog, lower-league side looking for Cup-sets.
This season, they are atop the table in MLS and own an undefeated record at TQL Stadium, a state-of-the-art fortress opened in 2021 that they call their own.
And that’s not the only thing that has been built along the way. FC Cincinnati has opened a world-class training facility, started a second team that competes in MLS NEXT Pro, developed a robust academy, and constructed a staff that has multiplied by over six times since that night in 2017.
(They even brought in a writer to tell you all of this, how crazy is that?)
But there are some things that remain the same.
The heart of the organization and its internal mission has grown but remains true. The desire for glory – and more tangibly, trophies – remains the same.
“For those of those that have been with FC Cincinnati since the start, the Open Cup is part of our history,” McNally said.
“Without our magical run in 2017, who knows where we are right now. Are we in MLS? I don't know. Do we have a $400 million stadium? I don't know. Am I sitting in a $35 million training center? I don't know. The magical U.S. Open Cup run in 2017 was when our city fell in love and was the catalyst for everything.”
The story of FC Cincinnati and their history is a romantic one. It’s full of highs and lows.
The club has seen jubilation in its successes in the USL and the Open Cup, but also seen great challenges in its first few MLS seasons.
The return to the semifinals is a reminder of just how long and hard the path back to this moment has been for the organization and its fans.
But it is those challenges, those trials that gives the club its heart, its soul. They have battled back from the depths, stuck together and now see themselves near the top. The underdog spirit remains.
“I think we still have that upstart persona, the chip on our shoulder that we had with us when we were a brand new club,” Berding says of the organization now. “It still has a similar relevance … we're still David against Goliath.”
“We’ve had huge success, but we have also experienced huge failure,” McNally said of the club's history fueling its present. “To fight our way back to a high, it's so rewarding because we've taken a huge punch and we've gotten up off the floor. We're still fighting and that's what I love.
“We have fought our way back from the depths and now we're in a very strong position again. There's highs and there's lows, but we've stuck together.”
The legacy of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal isn’t over; it really could be just the beginning. Every victory earned in MLS, every title, accolade or celebration continues the legacy of the club and therefore that evening at Nippert Stadium.
But the opportunity to create a new, separate legacy and more history still waits.
“(An Open Cup title) certainly puts a successful cap on our transition from the USL into Major League Soccer,” Berding says. “Which we know was very slow and agonizing, unsuccessful at the beginning, but to come out of that transition in year five with the trophy certainly lets us put a little bit of an exclamation point on it.
“It would cement our ambition from day one that we're going to be a winning club.”
The showdown with Inter Miami CF on August 23 is just the first step in a season that has potential greatness within its grasp. Beyond the chance at hosting a cup final at TQL Stadium, the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup still wait for the MLS-leading Orange and Blue to challenge for them this fall.
Oh, and Lionel Messi could make his Cincinnati debut for his new MLS club, setting up the ultimate battle of Gary versus The Goat.
The club is readying to celebrate its eight-year anniversary on Saturday, an additional milestone to the one that the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal in 2017 represents for the club. It took two years to reach the penultimate round the first time, and six years to reach it again.
As the club looks back on the eight years of existence, and measures its mile markers in Open Cup semifinal appearances, where will they be the next time FC Cincinnati finds itself fighting for the Lamar Hunt trophy?
Hopefully, with a fuller trophy case, stories to tell of lifting silverware, and opportunities to say ‘we did that because of the 2023 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.’