The Curious Case of Soccer in the Heartland
The shocking news came in the dark of night on July 28, 2021. Columbus would no longer play host to USA vs. Mexico in the next World Cup Qualifier. That sacred honor was now bestowed upon its little brother to the south, Cincinnatti.
The quiet and unease in our East Coast office was palpable. This wasn’t a location of glory befitting the behemoth-sized matchup between two bitter rivals. This was Cincinnatti, a small Ohio river town, where the biggest event of the year involves a gathering in Town Square to perform the Chicken Dance, and whose residents believe chili belongs on spaghetti (it doesn't.) The first things that come to mind about Cincinnatti - if one thinks about Cincinnati at all – are local heroes Pete Rose and Jerry Springer (neither of whom have been relevant since the ‘70s). The last things that come to mind are good food and sports achievement.
However, I knew something my fellow journalists did not. I had heard of the rise of soccer in this faraway land. I heard stories of Cincinnatites gathering by the dozens in support of a third division soccer team, when the sport didn’t exist within city limits even five years prior. People who normally spent their time at the local watering hole or Pee Wee baseball game were now filling seats at a college football stadium to root for the other kind of football (soccer).
A strange thing was happening in America’s heartland, something that must be seen to be understood, and so I volunteered to experience it for myself.
As I landed at the Cincinnatti International Airport, which is ironically located in Kentucky (Should I have been worried geography was not the airport’s strong suit?), I immediately got a sense of the landscape: Flat land, bare trees, cold gray highway for miles. I would soon be on that highway, passing the border into Ohio, under a sign that tersely read, “Ohio. Find It Here.”
“Find what?” I wondered, as I drove on, nary a soccer fan in sight. This was hardly the rich and thriving soccer hub I’d been led to believe. Doubt began to creep in. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps this truly was a broken city on a blank map. Then I entered downtown, the buildings illuminated by hundreds of lights. In the dark, with sleepy, travel-worn eyes, it almost resembled a bustling metropolis. More astonishing yet was what was plastered on a worn billboard: An advertisement for the local MLS team, Cincinnatti FC. It was a sign (quite literally) that I was on the right path.
In the morning, I set out to mingle with the locals and get a taste for life here in the forgotten corner of the Midwest. Three things struck me as I walked the streets that day: The dingy gray buildings were a harrowing reminder that the city never recovered from the Great Depression, the putrid stench of Skyline Chili, hanging thick like sludge in the air, was repulsive and unbearable, and finally, soccer had arrived.
In a place full of quaint and simple citizens, where cornhole (“bags” in the rest of the United States) and high school basketball reigned supreme, it would seem a new sport had entered the proverbial arena. Cincinnatti had finally discovered The World's Game - though their corn-fed Midwestern understanding of how the game should be played remained lacking. (See: The aforementioned FC Cincinnati, a team that's known nothing but humiliation and failure, much like the city itself.)
But could a place like Cincinnatti handle the eyes of the world? That question was quickly answered. Shop windows, bars, and even pedestrians were decked in USMNT and FC Cincinnati gear. Fans were excited to welcome guests for the biggest match of the next five years. Despite being introduced to soccer only recently, those I spoke with seemed to understand the gravity of the occasion and were reverent of its history. As this was the biggest event to grace the small town since the filming of Rain Man 30 years ago, they assured they would put on a spectacle.
Yet as meek and unassuming as the crowds were, it was on my way to the World Cup Qualifying venue that I had a bone-chilling encounter. Fans chanted, “Bless you,” in zombie-like unison after I sneezed. Though FC Cincinnati’s ties to the religious occult were rumor, I couldn’t help but wonder if the rumors were true after this experience. One can only hope the sanctity of the separation of church and state is preserved on Team USA’s matchday.
I shook away my nerves and carried on. As I climbed the stadium’s grand staircase, which was nothing more than cold concrete slabs reminiscent of Soviet-era architecture, I caught the attention of more idling fans. It was as if they could sense I was a traveler and descended upon me like rats, eager to show off the collection of riches hidden in their nest.
They proudly paraded the home of FC Cincinnatti, TQL Stadium, which stood before us. Though it was erected mere months ago, the stadium was already considered a city landmark. I chuckled quietly to myself as I recalled Clancy’s Pub back home, over 250 years old and the location of George Washington’s favorite lobster roll (as well as the best codfish balls to ever caress one’s tongue). Yet I cannot blame Cinncinatians for being desperate for their own history. If Cincinnati still exists 20 years from now, the memories made during this historic, and likely only, important match will continue to be the largest feather in the city’s cap.
Light danced from the LED fins covering the roof of the arena, dazzling my new acquaintances below, who may only see electricity once or twice a month. To the rest of us, it’s no Times Square, but it does put into perspective how good life can be, or how cruel. Any one of us could have been born in Cincinnatti, and that truth made my trip to TQL Stadium truly sobering.
There was fear among the national soccer community that without any professional players of their own, the city may not embrace the outsiders of the U.S. Men’s National Team. After all, to a place untouched by time like Cinncinnati, professional athletes coming from dazzling modern cities such as New York and Los Angeles can seem quite intimidating. Yet after my experience today, I can paint the citizens of Cincinnati as delightfully uncomplicated and welcoming.
Enthusiasm runs high in this backwater Ohio town, and this is a story of hope. Hope that the soccer landscape in America is changing. Hope that more and more Americans are learning to love The Beautiful Game. After all, if soccer mania can happen in an irrelevant farming community like Cincinnatti, it can happen anywhere.