Friday Funblast: From Nashville to Mexico
The Friday Funblast — Friday, July 30 2021
In this week's episode, the gang heads to Nashville and lays a total egg in the music city. The city steals the Super Bowl of American soccer from an arch rival. And we examine why Jeff Berding haters should just grow up. Are we having funbalst yet? You bet we are....
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but The FC lost a soccer match this weekend. In what felt like a throwback game to the start of the season (when FCC was getting blown out regularly and conceding backbreakers like a kid learning to sell suplexes in a wrestling school), FC Cincinnati conceded three goals to their rivals from the South while remaining non-threatening for the entire ninety minutes of the match. The match bore little resemblance to the midweek tilt against Atlanta (where the offense spent long stretches looking threatening) or the previous weekend’s match against Montreal (where the offense scored a shtiload of goals for no discernable reason). It was a match that found the FC completely out of rhythm, showing no offensive identity, and generally looking like they’d rather be literally anywhere else than a soccer field in Nashville.
This was a match that cast even more confusion over that most basic of questions: What kind of team is FC Cincinnati? In the last three matches alone, we’ve seen FC Cincinnati lose a shootout, draw a game they should’ve won, and be thoroughly outclassed and outplayed by a superior opponent. What the fuck do you take from that to build a greater narrative about the season? The team is so maddeningly inconsistent that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how big the problems are. You watch Brenner break out of his slump with two goals and think to yourself “Hell yeah, here we go…” only for him to disappear against Nashville like someone just ordered a round of Rumple Minze for the table. You see 5 goals scored by Montreal and think “Oh, well, that’s only because Geoff Cameron wasn’t there…” and then the team goes and gives up 3 once they reach a state that doesn’t give a fuck if the unvaccinated are in the starting 11.
So, which team is The FC? The team that can score 4, but concedes 5? The team that has to grind out a 1-1 draw against Atlanta? The one that doesn’t even look like it wants to be there on the field against Nashviile? The truth is it’s all of them. There is no consistency because the team lacks an identity. It presses occasionally. It counters occasionally. It occasionally shows offensive threat. It defends well occasionally. You’ll walk into the Tickle on Saturday having absolutely no idea which version you’re going to get, and that’s endlessly frustrating. This team teases you with the idea that there is a better version of itself out there just waiting to spring into action. It’s part of the reason some people (albeit a dwindling number of them) still believe Jaap Stam and Gerard Nijkamp deserve more time -- they believe this team is going to decide who it wants to be. But, as everyone who has ever gone to college knows -- you are who you are. As desperate as people are to re-invent themselves in a new place, where people *don’t* know you were the guy who shit out the window of a moving yellow bus on a sports trip (true story about a guy I knew in college -- dude’s friends eventually visited him on campus and told everyone the story), you always end up being who you are. And who Cincinnati is right now is “fucking inconsistent.”
Eventually this is going to doom Jaap and Gerard (it should have already, but I realize I’m fighting a losing battle here), but should anyone else go with them?
This leads to...
IN DEFENSE OF JEFF BERDING
There’s absolutely no doubt that FC Cincinnati is one of the greatest stories in American Soccer History. A club, formed out of nothing and built on the bones of a half dozen failed attempts at soccer in Cincinnati, inexplicably catches fire and builds itself into a top-tier club with a world-class stadium in the heart of the city. It’s fucking bananas when you think about how much this organization and city have accomplished in a short amount of time. The list of reasons why this enterprise wouldn’t work could fill a local library branch (note to younger readers: a “library” is a building where things called “books” are loaned to people who don’t own Kindles). And yet, here we are — me writing a weekly column that no one reads about an MLS soccer club playing in Cincinnati, Ohio.
However, every great story needs a villain. And, over the past 2 seasons of disappointment so crushing that NASA physicists might mistake it for a neutron star, the emerging villain of the FC Cincinnati story has become Jeff Berding. The man who first stood on stage in 2015 and boldly declared Cincinnati was a soccer city (as he was serenaded by a bunch of college kids being paid to astroturf the moment) has now become public enemy number one in many circles of fandom.
The need for “narrative” in life is powerful. We are a race of storytellers— the only animals walking this rapidly-heating rock with the ability to create history and pass it along from generation to generation. And there is no force in the human psyche stronger than the desire to create narratives to explain things that make us upset or uncomfortable. It wasn’t enough to just accept that it got a little colder once every year; the Greeks had to weave an elaborate tale of love, deceit and the underworld to explain the changing of the seasons. We can see it on display right now, as (and I am not making this up) there are actual fucking people who believe that Joe Biden was refused entry to the White House by the military (due to having lost the election in a landslide) and is, instead, conducting government business from an 80% scale replica of the White House on the property of comedian and shitty-movie producer Tyler Perry (aside — if you ever want to piss off a Trekkie, point out to them that, at a take of $385 million, “Star Trek” is the highest grossing “Tyler Perry Movie” of all time). All because an uncomfortable large number of problematic aunts and uncles can’t fucking accept that Donald Trump lost a goddamn election. We need narratives in our lives, and when narratives don’t exist we often create them to our own detriment. And, right now, there is a pervasive need in some circles of the FCC community to create a narrative that explains why we’re so fucking godawful at soccering, with Jeff Berding as the leading man.
But, I’m here to tell you that these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
Let’s start with some facts from the outset — there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Jeff Berding is responsible for any part of the current FC Cincinnati roster. In fact, every single player on The FC right now is there because Gerard Nijkamp signed them to a contract. These are Nijkamp’s guys. And, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that Berding is pulling the strings on who can and cannot be signed. The FC has one of the largest payrolls in MLS, and every indication is that Gerard and Jaap have been given free reign (within the obvious reason of MLS’s economics) to go and sign whatever players they want. There hasn’t been a whisper from anyone — the media, the players, Nijkamp’s kid, anyone — that Berding is meddling in any aspect of soccer affairs. And given the literal fucking dumpster fire going on these past two years, you can bet every goddamn dollar in your wallet that someone would be throwing Jeff under the bus were that the case.
Isn’t that exactly what everyone wanted? For Jeff to step back and step away from soccer related decisions? Well, mission fucking accomplished.
The hiring of Nijkamp (and, by extension, the hiring of Racist Uncle Ron & Jaap Stam) is absolutely on Jeff. As the “agent” of ownership, he’s charged with hiring the people who run the soccer club. But, that’s the case in virtually every single sports organization on the planet — there’s always a level where the only spot higher is the owner or ownership. And, at that point of inflection, every sports team has a non-soccer (or non-football / non-baseball / non-basketball, etc.) person making a decision that impacts the on-field product. It happens in the NFL, where (at least in cities where the team isn’t owned by a man desperately trying to prove he knows as much about the sport as his Hall of Fame legend of a father) the ownership makes the hire of “General Manager” to run the team. It’s accomplished in much the same way as Gerard was brought to Cincinnati — ownership hires a search firm, is given a candidate or candidates, and then there are interviews to determine who is the best choice. Is it always right? Absolutely not, but there’s no reality where a sporting hire at the top of an org can happen without a non-sporting person giving a thumbs up or thumbs down. You just have to hope your search firm did good and the person in charge gets a decent enough read on the person to make a good judgment call.
I’d argue that, in this case, Berding made a bad call and that it’s time to launch both Gerard and Jaap. But, I’m not opposed to the take that Gerard has only been here 2 years and deserves at least until the end of the season to show results. So fine. But to the chorus of people claiming that Berding needs to go with them, my question is: OK, then what? Someone is going to need to hire the next GM (who will then hire the next coach & coaching staff). Who do you want that to be? CL3? Ask a Reds fan how having a Lindner making decisions went in the early 2000s. Meg Whitman? She was fucking incredible at her last venture — burning through $1.75 billion in venture capital on Quibi like weed at a Phish concert without ever bothering to ask “wait, why would people pay for this shit when YouTube is free?” And that was on the heels of a California gubernatorial run where she lost to a sentient mayonnaise jar. You want to trust the future of making international slot decisions to someone who claimed she didn’t fucking know she was employing an illegal alien as a nanny and housekeeper for a decade? Fuck no.
And, the “Jeff is the real problem” really ignores a ton of the assets Berding brings to the table. He’s the reason there is a stadium in this city right now. Full stop. The idea that we built another sports stadium in Cincinnati, no matter the reason or how much was publicly / privately funded, is insane. The fact that we got it built in the heart of the city v some field in Mason doubles down on the insanity. Again, that’s Berding -- the man who convinced a room full of crooks that it was in their best interest to support soccer in downtown Cincinnati (actually, come to think of it, getting crooked politcos to do something you want is probably the best endorsement of a soccer mind you can have).That building, incidentally, will be hosting the biggest soccer match in the United States this November (more on this in a second)— a match we fucking STOLE from Columbus because our shit down here, off the field, is light years better than what is going on up there. We have a first class training facility built out in Milford. Our club’s youth program is going strong and winning matches. You can change General Managers and fire coaches; but there’s absolutely nothing you can do if the stuff off the field isn’t working to produce a winning product and build the foundations of a winning culture. You know who’s responsible for that? Darth Vader himself.
So, given all that, if you’re deeply “BERDING OUT!” what you’re really saying is you want a pound of flesh for how 2019 went. And I kinda get it -- I really do. The instant Jeff walked out of that MLS event with Don Garber at Rhinegeist (after maybe stopping to change into a new shirt, because it was a billion fucking degrees inside that brewery), his first order of business should have been to hire a GM to prepare the team for the transition to MLS. Or, in lieu of that, to just give Luke Sassano the title of “GM” and put him in charge of it. That was a stupid fucking decision, and it undoubtedly set the team back. No argument from me there that The FC would *probably* be in a better place if they had taken that step at first.
But, it's also time for the Berding haters to grow the fuck up and move on. It isn't 2019 any longer. We’re in the here and now, and the here and now is a reality where Jeff Berding is, almost certainly, a net asset to FC Cincinnati as a non-soccer figure. And, stay with me here -- his departure would not put FC Cincinnati in a better place. It would simply change who the suit is adopting the recommendation of whatever consulting group is brought in to make the next hire. Basically, as the top non-sports figure in an organization, you're probably not going to do a whole lot better than him; and that was certainly on full display this week.
Which leads us to...
ONCE UPON A TIME VS. MEXICO…
The biggest soccer news of the week had absolutely nothing to do with The FC, as the US Soccer Federation announced on Wednesday that Cincinnati had been selected as the host for the United States / Mexico World Cup Qualifier in November. To say this was massive news would be an understatement. US v. Mexico is, without a doubt, the single most important soccer match of any World Cup Qualifier cycle. It matches the two “powerhouse” programs of CONCACAF and gives the winner a massive leg-up in qualifications. For the last 20+ years, this match has been held in Columbus, Ohio at HISTORIC CREW STADIUM™. And if you didn’t know that, one single trip around social media would’ve given you an education, because Hard Hat Inc.’s fanbase was *pissed* following the announcement.
In many ways, the shifting of US v. MEX to Cincinnati is symbolic of what has happened in Ohio’s soccer landscape. In every area besides on-field competition, Cincinnati has now supplanted Columbus as the premier soccer market in the state (and, perhaps, the entire Midwest). The Crew may have had a 25 year head start, but their lead has evaporated so fast that you’d be forgiven for wondering if Kenneth Vermeer was in charge of protecting it. In just a few short years, Cincinnati has developed a better fanbase, a better market-share / mind-share within its own city (seriously -- you could fire a howitzer off in Columbus and not hit a single person wearing Crew gear on any given day), a better stadium, better training facilities, a better youth program, etc. Moving US/MEX 100 miles south was simply inevitable, and no amount of shark memes or self-aggrandizing fan documentaries was going to change that. The only people who didn’t see this coming were the Columbus SC supporters, but then again, they were also blindsided by the Crew moving to Austin and oblivious to the sea of empty bleachers at Crew matches for the better part of a decade.
The return of the USMNT Ninja Turtles to Cincinnati also means that we’re once again forced to deal with the stupidity that is US Soccer Federation ticketing policies. Following the announcement of the WCQ date, US Soccer published this helpful guide -- which makes about as much sense as a session of Dungeons & Dragons conducted in ancient Egyptian:
If your first thought when looking at this image is “Man, this seems like a fucking cash grab,” you’d be absolutely correct. There are not one, not two, not three, but fucking four different types of paid-for status groups for individuals to buy their way into in order to (checks notes) pay for the privilege of attending a fucking soccer match. On one hand, you have to hand it to the US Soccer Federation for taking “Pay To Play,” the single most criticized aspect of American Soccer, and turning it into a goddamn ticket allocation program. The top tier here costs FIVE HUNDRED FUCKING DOLLARS to join -- and that’s just to get a chance at early access to spend more on tickets. For that much fucking money, you should get an IV bottle of top-shelf booze stuck into your arm and a hand job from Greg Berhalter at halftime. And it cannot be stated enough: This is the *national team.* They don’t need the gate from home games to be profitable, and they sure as shit don’t need to run a goddamn multi-level-marketing scheme to grant access to fucking match tickets.
And all of this is before we get into the insanely problematic and bizarrely stupid existence of the “American Outlaws.” They’re probably worth an article all on their own, given the fact that they’re essentially handed a monopoly on ticketing for entire sections of stadiums at USMNT & USWNT matches (but hey, I’m sure they’re run completely on the up & up, just like everything else in international soccer is).
If you’re looking for a TL;DR here: Hooray we got the game, Boo none of us are probably getting tickets. Which is super unfortunate, because the current trajectory suggests that the USMNT might be the first home team to win a match at TQL Stadium -- and I’m gonna be pissed when I miss that.
THE PREDICTION DISTRICT
I know very little about DC United other than the fact their record isn’t great. We seem to be able to hold our own against bad teams, and we’re also getting Team Costa Rica back and available for selection this weekend. I like our odds, but come on -- we don’t win home games.
1-1 draw. The TQL waits yet again to celebrate that first FC home win.
THEY MADE A MOVIE ABOUT FRANKO & TOM’S TIME AT FCC:
It’s called “The Benchwarmers.”
Alright, that’s it for the week. Get fucking vaccinated and shame everyone in your life who isn’t. America Forever. Mexico Never. See you motherfuckers in the thunderdome.