OPINION

SUPPORT IS EARNED

Mitchell Matacia  October 29, 2021                                                                                                            

   On a mild Friday night in Bed-Stuy I took the A train on Fulton all the way up to Harlem to visit friend and Auxilia One founding member, Mike Sause. I met Mike in 2018. He showed up at the corner of Havemeyer and 1st at a bar called Banter to watch FC Cincinnati during one of the first New York City watch parties. He was there during the USL days, when Auxilia One was a revolving door of transplants and native New Yorkers. Mike quickly endeared himself to everyone in the group through his charisma and warmness. Like most of us, he came from Cincinnati. Although he graduated from Xavier, he is a Bearcat football fan, a frequenter of Bengals’ bar Phebes on Bowery, and one of the few true baseball fans I know.

 

   I exited the train with my girlfriend Federica and walked 10 minutes to Mike’s apartment building. I took the elevator upstairs. I had barely even knocked on the door when it swung open. I was greeted by the smell of snickerdoodle cookies and fellow Auxilia One members David, Yinja, Matt, and Mike. Quickly, I was handed a Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy and a cinnamon sugar cookie - a combination bizarre in reality, yet normalized within the present company. 

   We took a seat on the couch as the intrastate derby ‘Hell is Real’ began. We watched - stunned - as FC Cincinnati took the lead in the 1st minute off of Edgar Catillo’s rocket-strike that deflected off of Jonathan Mensah into the ceiling of Columbus’s net. FCC added another in the 24th minute, this time it was Acosta, the new signing from DC. The apartment erupted once again and the beer (and cookies) kept flowing. The spirit amongst The Rats was high until The Crew drew within 1 right before the half. In the second, FC Cincy’s chances seemed to lessen. The attack now stripped of its teeth. Then, in the 77th, Miguel Berry equalized. Eventually, the final whistle blew and the night that began like Christmas in July, faded into a familiar form of disappointment. 

  "We’ve spent full length days riding trains and hanging out at watch parties supporting FC Cincy, but truthfully, the only thing I’ve enjoyed about watching this team the last 3 years is the people I watch with."

 

   We would leave around an hour later, saying our goodbyes to Mike and the others, feeling snubbed by the chain of events we witnessed. Again, we walked another 10 minutes, past bustling bars and outdoor patios crowded with drunk patrons. We submerged into the bowels of the A train tunnels riding all the way to Utica Ave, an hour or so away, before walking another 15 minutes to our apartment. This was our Friday, and in some ways, it felt like any other weekend. We’ve built many nights around FC Cincinnati. We’ve gone to apartments, we’ve gone to bars, we’ve gone to Jersey, to the Bronx. As a group, we’ve collectively spent thousands of dollars on alcohol, tickets, jerseys, scarves, hats, and subway fares. We’ve spent full length days riding trains and hanging out at watch parties supporting FC Cincy, but truthfully, the only thing I’ve enjoyed about watching this team the last 3 years is the people I watch with. 

 

   On Wednesday, the Orange and Blue secured their 3rd consecutive wooden spoon - a figurative trophy awarded to the worst team in the league each year. No other team has claimed 3 straight. And FC Cincinnati has been the worst - in nearly every category. There hasn’t been an MLS team this bad since Chivas USA. FC Cincinnati is breaking all of the wrong records - records set more than 15 years ago. They are the second MLS team ever to break a -100 goal differential in their tenure. Bad isn’t a good descriptor of FCC. Miserable doesn’t cover it. This franchise is historically awful, and I doubt they will be challenged for the best of the bad anytime soon.

 

   Through this inferno of failure, there is a marked difference in the mentality of Cincinnati supporters. At least some are publicly frustrated. Infamously, the Big 4 removed their banners before a Hell is Real match during the club’s 2020 campaign in an empty Nippert Stadium - locked down due to COVID-19. This decision was met with a mixture of criticism and support. Jaap Stam, the manager at the time, disapproved. Other supporters are bullish on the future of a team that just added General Manager Chris Albright and will eventually bring in a new coach sometime this winter. The fact that the club is spending money is a positive too. Tucked somewhere within this support is an old-hat thought that fans must stand by their club no matter the situation. Soccer social media is especially fond of pointing out who is plastic and who is ‘real’ - an arbitrary designation that is sometimes used to define those who are unwavering in their support and those who decide to walk away. And this hard stance about fandom might go over well in a league with club infrastructure, where fans own the team and have history embedded in the community. These types of clubs were historically born from unions and working class people who were in it for the love of the game. So, if you’re a European walking away from your club, you’re not just walking away from supporting a team, you’re walking away from a cultural touchstone in your community. 

 

   In MLS, it’s different. These teams are franchises run by billionaires. They are born with profitability in mind. They are born from money, for money. They are corporations that incidentally exist in our hometowns and will search for greener pastures if the money is right (see Austin FC, Anthony Precourt). To FCC’s credit, Carl Lindner III is a Cincy native and ownership have interacted with the main SGs, giving them autonomy and lending an ear to their grievances. They have granted permissions to these groups and welcomed suggestions across the board. Smartly, ownership also sent out fan surveys for the new stadium before Cincy even kicked a ball in MLS, which is partly why the Bailey at TQL has safe-standing. Still, the team is new. It isn't woven into the population and culture like European fan-driven clubs. There was no grassroots movement perpetuating FC Cincinnati (as much as Jeff Berding is fond of claiming there was). The franchise was made for business. 

   I've been circling this cold fact for awhile, and I had a similar conversation about pessimism with fellow Aux One member and Cincy Soccer Talk contributor, Clay Winstead. We were in Brooklyn eating tacos on the eve of FC Cincinnati at NYCFC. We got to talking about the American structure of sports. He told me he supports the team for the city that he loves, that the team can represent the aspirations of the community surrounding it. He admitted that he was trying to ignore the business nature of MLS and the fact that soccer here does not resemble soccer in many countries. This conversation surprised me. I think he was watching too much Ted Lasso at the time, distorting his perception. But he did have a point. FC Cincinnati is a way to connect with people, and a way to represent the city we are both from. I've met amazing people in New York City because of our interest in the team.

  "Sometimes the best thing we can do as supporters is criticize the franchise in our city, take the weekend off, and spend our money and time elsewhere. In this current American soccer system, support is not a guarantee, it is earned."

 

   But the club’s lack of success has been demoralizing and Carl Lindner III’s 2019 promise of improvement on the pitch is now two years past due. In Cincy’s MLS era, fans have seen 3 different coaches (Koch, Jans, Stam) and 3 different technical general managers (Berding, Nijkamp, Albright) since 2019. As the 2021 season soon comes to a close, FCC have lost 10 straight with their last win on September 11th. Auxilia One was at Banter that day, watching the team’s first win at TQL from over 500 miles away. It felt cathartic, brought smiles and whiskey shots, and spurred some hope that the team might not finish last. Unfortunately, they did. The present reality of this team is bleak and that should be a reminder that you don’t need to show up. You don’t need to watch, march, or Tweet. You don’t need to wear a scarf, or a jersey, or invest in next year. All of these decisions are valid. Sometimes the best thing we can do as supporters is criticize the franchise in our city, take the weekend off, and spend our money and time elsewhere. In this current American soccer system, support is not a guarantee, it is earned.