FC Cincinnati to join MLS as expansion team next season

FC Cincinnati will join Major League Soccer next season as the league's newest expansion team.

MLS made the announcement on Tuesday evening at a ceremony with commissioner Don Garber and Cincinnati mayor John Cranley in attendance.

"Major League Soccer is proud to introduce Cincinnati as our 26th team," said Garber, who told those in attendance the city "shocked the world."

"The rise of Cincinnati as a passionate soccer market in recent years, coinciding with the city's growing economy and reputation as a top destination for young professionals makes it an ideal city for our growing league.

"We congratulate [FC Cincinnati managing owner and CEO] Carl Lindner and his partners, and also the soccer fans of Cincinnati, who have passionately supported FC Cincinnati in the USL."

FC Cincinnati, which has played in the lower-division United Soccer League since 2016, will continue to use the University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium until its own soccer-specific venue is completed.

With a temporary venue already in place, MLS gave Cincinnati the go-ahead to join the league next season -- leapfrogging two other recently announced expansion clubs in Nashville and Miami, which are expected to start in 2020.

"Cincinnati's selection by Major League Soccer for an expansion team is a triumph for the continued renaissance of this incredible city," Lindner said of the announcement.

"I have to start by thanking the supporters of FC Cincinnati, because from the beginning they were the foundation of the efforts of our bid to join MLS. We could not have done this without them. This has been a true team effort among the soccer fans, our partners and our civic and corporate leaders.

"This is a city with a historically deep relationship between the people and its teams, and we are going to take that to even greater heights in MLS. Thank you to commissioner Garber and all of the league's owners for their faith in Cincinnati. We're excited to be part of Major League Soccer's tremendous future."

MLS, which is looking to add four teams in two rounds of expansion, invited 12 cities to submit bids more than a year ago. Nashville won the first slot in December, leaving Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento as finalists to vie for the other spot in the initial wave. In January, MLS awarded a long-expected expansion team to David Beckham's group in Miami in a separate process.

The league hasn't decided which conference FC Cincinnati will join next year, Garber said.

FC Cincinnati had made major strides toward constructing a new stadium in recent months, winning approval from the Cincinnati city council to cover $34.8 million in infrastructure costs for the team's otherwise privately financed 21,000-seat, $212.5 million venue in the West End neighborhood.

"The news of Cincinnati joining Major League Soccer makes this a landmark day for our city," Cincinnati mayor John Cranley said. "I want to thank commissioner Garber and everyone with MLS for believing in Cincinnati, and I'm delighted that the faith shown in our beautiful city by Carl Lindner and his partners has been rewarded.

"In MLS, FC Cincinnati and its new world-class soccer stadium in the West End will spur additional economic and cultural growth for our city."

Cranley proclaimed it orange and blue day in Cincinnati.

"There was a time when people didn't think we were hip or cool enough ... or big enough to support three major league teams in one city," he said. "I'm still a Reds and Bengals fan, aren't you?"

The club has been a major success story since joining the USL in 2016, averaging more than 21,000 fans in 16 home games last season, and beating two MLS clubs in the U.S. Open Cup in front of 30,000-plus fans. On April 7, the club set a USL record with 25,667 fans for its home opener against defending champion Louisville City.

It has also been one of the city's recent sports successes.

Xavier and Cincinnati were ranked in the top 10 in college basketball last season. The Reds are in the third year of a major rebuild and got off to their worst start since the Great Depression this season. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of futility in NFL history.

Bengals running back Giovani Bernard attended the pep rally Tuesday wearing an FC Cincinnati shirt. The team issued a statement congratulating the soccer team.

"Procuring a new franchise presents real challenges, and FC Cincinnati has handled those challenges with the energy and perseverance needed for success," the Bengals said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.