A stadium could be the last thing that separates Cincinnati from MLS expansion

MLS commissioner Don Garber visited Cincinnati for the first time on Tuesday, and a large part of the trip seemed to be about signaling the league’s interest in the city and discussing the possibility of expansion there.

But the trip also hinted toward what FC Cincinnati still needs to do before Garber and MLS executives will consider making Cincinnati the next MLS franchise — and that is shaking up the club’s existing plans and building their own stadium.

"I think what they’ve been able to do (at Nippert) is spectacular, but we do believe that our clubs will be more successful in soccer stadiums," Garber said, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Garber said that FC Cincinnati has been looking at potential stadium locations, but offered no specifics. That is a big change from April, though, when the club said they had no plans to build a stadium or training grounds. In fact, Jeff Berding, the president of FC Cincinnati, suggested back then that the club could play at Nippert Stadium, a football stadium at the University of Cincinnati, for the next 15 years. Playing at Nippert was built into the club’s financial structure, he added.

But Garber’s visit may very well change how FC Cincinnati views their stadium plan, as it appears Cincinnati’s chances of joining MLS hinge entirely on their stadium.

The league and Garber have repeatedly made their criteria for expansion pretty clear:

1. Local ownership group with enough financial resources
2. Plan for a downtown stadium that the ownership group controls
3. Untapped media market that would attract TV deals and sponsorships
4. Strong fan support for soccer in the area

Given that Garber said in his visit to Cincinnati he thinks a regional rivalry with the Columbus Crew would be a benefit — "Our rivalry games that we have are our highest-rated games on television,” he said — that leaves only the stadium left unchecked.

But that one unchecked box is bigger than it appears at first glance. Not only are FC Cincinnati simply tenants renting out space at Nippert Stadium, they don’t have their own training facilities either. The parts of an organization such facilities usually serve are the elements that give MLS clubs a footprint in their local communities, like youth academies, reserve teams and women’s teams.

Of course, having all of that is no guarantee that MLS will come knocking. The Sacramento Republic — the club whose USL attendance records were beat by Cincinnati — has had every box checked for a while now, with a youth academy and plans for a new downtown stadium moving forward regardless of whether MLS adds Sacramento. They’ve also signaled long-term plans for a women’s team. MLS has been receptive, but reluctant, pushing Sacramento’s efforts off to this upcoming round of expansion, which is expected to be the last.

Miami, on the other hand, is a case study for the importance of having a stadium in MLS’s eyes. Garber had long granted David Beckham an expansion spot, but the part-owner has run into constant roadblocks to building a stadium in Miami. An official Miami franchise has not been announced yet as battles with the city over a stadium drag on.

Building a new soccer-specific stadium from scratch isn’t easy, but it’s clearly what FC Cincinnati needs to do in order to make the big-league ranks. Garber’s visit to Cincinnati only seems to reinforce that.