Soccer is slowly rising from the ashes in the United States of America, as the game continues to grow both on and off of the field. The sport in the States is no longer a hotbed for superstars to spend their twilight years in the sun but is slowly emerging amongst the top leagues globally.
More importantly, for me anyway, is the growth in the stands. The American fanatics have grown with the game, this is evidenced by the fact that the Super Bowl hosted 2,938 fewer spectators than the MLS Cup Final this year.
With Major League Soccer reaching all-time highs in both quality on the pitch and numbers in the stands, another wildcard will be introduced into the league this year.
This arrives in the form of FC Cincinnati. The franchise succeeds the team of the same name who competed in the United Soccer League, as announced on 29th May 2018. The former club began play in 2016 in the second tier of US Soccer, and found instant success winning 51, drawing 26 and losing just 19 games in their first three years in the league. Their success on the pitch was instantaneously rewarded with support in the stands, as the club began setting record numbers in attendance. Most notably, in a friendly against Crystal Palace on 16th July 2016 when 35,061 fans turned up on game day. The club owns the record for average USL attendance at 25,717.
Officially, the club recognises five supporter groups, these being: Die Innenstadt, The Legion, The Pride, Queen City Firm and The Briogáid.
The most recognisable faction of FC Cincinnati’s fanatical faction are Die Innenstadt. They’re notoriously loud and can be recognised straight away wearing the colours of the club; orange and blue.
Evidently, the supporters group favours a German-style approach in everything they do, from their name to their chants. To track their origins we have to travel back to 2016, with an initial gathering between a group of guys and gals who gave birth to the idea of building a fanatical backbench.
Since then, their enthusiasm has infested itself within the community, as they continue to make Mecklenburg Garden their watering hole before home games and from there they take to the streets marching in their hundreds to the stadium.
Telling the story of Die Innenstadt was always going to be a difficult task. With that in mind, I decided to make it a little easier for myself and spoke directly with the supporter groups’ President, Jared Handra.
More than a game
For me, it’s evident that Die Innenstadt aren’t just fans of soccer, they’re ambassadors of the game. They believe that the game is a chance to imprint your own unique stamp on the world, which is simply unheard of in most sports. This is a sentiment that Jared mirrored in our discussion.
“Die Innenstadt was formed before the 2016 season as a way to support the new team, but also as an outlet to proclaim our love for Cincinnati and the people that make up the city.”
Jared added, “The game is about way more than what happens on the field, but it’s also an opportunity to tell the world who you are.”
The club also acknowledges that without fans, there’s no football. As a result of this, both Die Innenstadt and the team’s representatives hold a fantastic relationship, which makes communication of the utmost importance to ensure the experience of match day is as amazing as possible.
“We have a point person with the club and meet monthly with various members of the staff to address issues and ensure we’re all on the same page. Our “involvement” with the club is limited as we are an independent supporters group, but the lines of communication are always open.
As a supporters’ group, our main goal when it comes to the team itself, is to provide support to the players on the field. This means singing and chanting songs throughout 90+ minutes of play and waving flags and hanging banners that our members create by hand. This includes the giant tifo displays that you’ll sometimes see before a game. We communicate with the front office with regards to these displays, and also with our pre-game march. It’s a delicate dance we have to do to coordinate the movement of a few hundred people into the stadium all at once, and the front office helps us as we approach and enter into Nippert Stadium.”
With the influx of European immigrants to the Land of the Free in the 20th Century, Cincinnati became a perfect destination for a large number of Germans. This connection was integral to the group’s formation.
“We have the largest Oktoberfest outside of Munich, numerous German-themed festivals, and of course a significant brewery heritage. Our name pays homage to that German culture, in addition to being inspired by the energy of our urban core (Die Innenstadt translates to “The Inner City”). That’s where the heartbeat of our city and region lies, and that’s what we want to be for this club and community. You can literally feel it in the stands on matchday, the noise we create alongside the other raucous fans in our supporters’ section.”
Match-days for the group are always electric, the combination of flares, food, beer and song are almost unbeatable. Taking this into account, I pondered whether Die Innenstadt could be rivalled in terms of fanaticism.
“We strongly believe we provide one of the best fan experiences for MLS fans today and encourage all FC Cincinnati fans to become members. Between our matchday activities, our charitable endeavours, and the sense of community we foster, we are extremely proud of what Die Innenstadt membership brings to fans.
All you have to do is come out to a pregame at Mecklenburg Gardens to get a sense of what we’re all about. Every litre of beer you purchase goes toward charity, and as we get closer to game time you’ll hear people starting chants and getting ready to march to the stadium. That being said, there is always room to improve on what we are doing, and we are constantly looking for feedback and ways to improve the experience FC Cincinnati fans get through our organization.
There are supporter groups in the United States that have been around for decades now, and we are always looking for ways to learn and interact with some of the other groups to improve the experience we can provide.”
Ultimately, the answer, in my opinion at least, is probably not. Both the club and Die Innenstadt’s growth has been vigorous, this, I feel, is unmatched across the league.
Bridging the gap
Relocating from the USL to the MLS is an enormous task. Not only is there a complete elevation in the quality of play, but there’s also a step up in the opposition’s fans. Regardless, the approach to the transition is something that has been welcomed by the city.
“MLS provides a level of competition higher than USL, and the supporters are excited to see some of the top talented athletes in the game visit Cincinnati and play for Cincinnati. Additionally, the energy and atmosphere of MLS matches will certainly be a step up from our USL experiences. We will always look back fondly on our times in the USL, but moving up to MLS has been the team’s goal the whole time, and most fans share in the excitement for the improved competition and exposure that brings.”
In addition to changing leagues, the team will also be moving on from their first home, Nippert Stadium.
“While we love Nippert Stadium, we are definitely excited to have a place to call our own. Nippert has a lot of history (built in 1915, which is ancient by our standards) and charm, but the fact is it wasn’t built for soccer and belongs to the University. The new stadium will provide a dedicated home for soccer in Cincinnati, and I’m sure the players will be thrilled to play on grass!”
Despite having to vacate their first home, the building of a new stadium presents an opportunity for the league’s newest identity to truly become whole.
The transition to MLS brings with it the birth of an interstate rivalry between FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew. These two franchises previously met in a U.S. Open Cup fixture back in 2017, which Cincinnati won 1-0.
The derby is nicknamed the “Hell is Real Derby” after a billboard on the Interstate 71 Highway which connects the two cities. Jared talked me through that rivalry, and the meaning it brings in 2019.
“Columbus Crew are a short 90 mile jaunt up Interstate 71. We faced off against them in a US Open Cup match two seasons ago and defeated them in a 1-0 result. Because we were the underdogs, and the team was potentially going to be a rival if we got into MLS, there was a lot of hype going into this match, and the result did not disappoint FC Cincinnati fans.
There is an iconic billboard between the two cities that states “HELL IS REAL” in big, bold letters as a warning of sorts to all motorists. The two sides took to referring to the match as the inaugural game in the Hell is Real Derby. Crew fans travelled well for the match and it made for an electric atmosphere, and we’re certain when we play them in Columbus this August, we’ll travel even better.
This in-state rivalry is something a lot of FC Cincinnati supporters wanted to maintain as it became more and more clear that we were going to get an expansion spot. When their team was under threat of relocation to Austin, Texas from their owner, many of us helped push the #savethecrew movement, which was ultimately successful last fall and ensured the team remains in Columbus. We are really excited to continue this rivalry in MLS and believe this will be one of the best rivalries in the league.”
Sky is the limit
As our conversation drew to a close, I had grasped fully the concept of Die Innenstadt. I could sense the immense passion that fuels the fire on gameday, but I wondered what Jared’s thoughts were on the continued growth of the game and where exactly FC Cincinnati can reach in the future. Here’s what he had to say:
“The game is definitely moving forward and evolving across the US. You can see that in comparing attendances between the Super Bowl and MLS final. While traditionally, it seemed like MLS was a place for veterans around the world to come for the twilight of their careers, the game is becoming faster and younger across the board. The investment in youth is starting to pay off, and as it progresses, can only become more prevalent. Interest and appreciation of the sport itself among the general population is also on the rise, and we love that. More teams are popping up across more cities, and old rivalries from other sports are bleeding over into new grounds. There’s not been a better time for the game in US than now.”
In regard to his team, Jared felt that the club doesn’t just represent those that play the game, but also those that make it what it is, those who make our game the beautiful game.
“This club has had a much broader reach than the players on the pitch. It’s coming together has had a positive impact on countless lives in our community, both through fundraisings by the club itself and by the supporters around them. We’re excited for the challenges that a new level of competition brings week in and out, but we’re also looking forward to showing the world how much more positivity the great game can bring this city outside of match day.”
Soccer in the States reaches farther than just the top-flight. From grassroots to MLS, the game has improved enormously. Most importantly however, the fans are at the core of the game’s success.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this belief is displayed perhaps more than any other club than with FC Cincinnati. It’s largest fanbase, Die Innenstadt, truly are the pinnacle of the club. As depicted, they do what they do for all the right reasons. Sure, having a great time on game days is fantastic, but their efforts to help support the local community via fundraising and charitable events is remarkable to say the very least. There’s no doubt in my mind that the club will emerge as a dark horse in the MLS in the future, but for now they can be content with boasting some of the best fans in the country.
With thanks: Jared Handra (@handrajs), Die Innenstadt (@DieInnenstadt)