The first time Gregg Berhalter was asked about Cincinnati’s soccer passion, he sat beneath The Bailey looking dejected after his club, Columbus Crew SC, lost to their lower-league neighbors in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The question was if Cincinnati deserved an MLS expansion bid.
“That’s above my pay grade,” Berhalter said. “This is what makes soccer special.”
Berhalter’s return to the Queen City really does show what makes soccer special.
Four years ago, this city lacked a professional soccer club. Now, Berhalter is the head coach of the U.S Men’s National Team and - ahead of the national team’s first visit to Cincinnati - he’s asking those same fans who taunted his old team to embrace his new one.
“Cincinnati’s become a soccer town,” Berhalter said Thursday night. “It’s amazing the crowd’s they’ve been getting. I’ve been following it and I’ve been really impressed. I’m glad to be back in Ohio and I’m looking forward to a noisy crowd.”
On Sunday afternoon, the USMNT will play in Cincinnati for the first time when they host Venezuela at Nippert Stadium in the final tune-up fixture before the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup starts next week.
It’s a crucial match for Berhalter, the national team and Cincinnati alike.
For him, the match serves as his last chance to tinker with players and formations before his first major international tournament leading the national team.
The MNT lost, 1-0, to Jamaica on Wednesday night in only their third loss to a Caribbean side on home soil in 50 years. Considering the Gold Cup is the first tournament since the Americans failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there’s increased pressure to both produce on the field and receive validation off it.
As for the Queen City, the region’s support of FC Cincinnati from the second division and the USL to MLS in 2019 speaks for itself. As a first-year MLS team, FCC claims the third-highest in average attendance in the league.
The U.S. Women’s National Team, which competes for a fourth FIFA World Cup beginning Friday, visited in 2017. Now with the USMNT’s arrival and the potential to host future international games – or even 2026 FIFA World Cup matches – Sunday is the platform to provide the men the perfect introduction and push for future visits.
Tickets one of the biggest soccer games in Cincinnati history are still available.
Those are the underlying aspects to Sunday’s game. It’s a chance for a new beginning, a final farewell before the tournament and a reminder of Cincinnati’s no-so-secret obsession with the beautiful game.
If soccer fans in the city wanted to watch the USMNT previously, that meant drives to Columbus, Cleveland, Chicago or Nashville. Now, the national team travels here. If supporters had to drive to have access to the team, the friendly at Nippert Stadium is an opportunity to introduce more local supporters to the top men’s players in the country. Yes, that means something – and, as Berhalter said, makes soccer special.
“It’s great we’re able to play in a number of different cities across America,” he said. “I’m glad Cincinnati was chosen because I know the tremendous support Cincinnati has.”
So, if he had a message to fans here, what would it be?
“Get behind us, enjoy yourselves and bring the noise like you always do.”