Cincinnati, Ohio is the capital of American Soccer. Let it sink in. Say it out loud and let it roll around your mind. For the moment at least, all eyes are on this city where the Licking and Ohio rivers meet, known more for a devotion to bats, mitts, and the oval kind of football. “There’s a perfect storm going on here,” midfielder Andrew Wiedeman told ussoccer.com about his second-tier FC Cincinnati, on a run to the Round of 16 of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup that is drawing huge crowds to a downtown dead as doornails not long ago.
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“It was the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in in my career,” said Wiedeman, the San Francisco Bay Area native who admitted to getting goosebumps “literally, for the first time” when he marched onto the turf at Nippert Stadium on June 14 for a famous 1-0 win over nearby MLS outfit Columbus Crew SC. There were 30,160 fans in the stands – a record crowd for a non-Final in the Open Cup. And they weren’t just there. They were loud, easily drowning out Crew fans who’d made the 100-mile trip south. “And I say that having played in all the big MLS stadiums. Nothing comes close to that day. The Bailey was just crazy!”
What’s the Bailey, you ask? It’s a section at the north end of the Stadium, built in 1915 for American football and part of the University of Cincinnati campus. It’s where 1,700 of FC Cincinnati’s hardest-core supporters stand and shout, ignite buckets of blue smoke, unfurl elaborate tifos, bang drums and generally intimidate the hell out of visiting teams. “I wouldn’t want to be an opposing goalkeeper and have the Bailey bouncing up over my head,” added Wiedeman, a whip-smart pro since 2010 with four seasons in MLS to his name. Believe him when he says there’s something special going on in the Queen City.
The Bailey Effect
“I think the word Bailey comes from the old days and means some kind of castle wall,” said Ryan Lammi, a member of Die Innenstadt – one of a clutch of supporters groups that sprang to life and grew up with the new United Soccer League (USL) team since its founding just 21 months ago. “It’s a little tough to pronounce, and even tougher to spell,” 27 year-old Lammi laughed, taking time out from his job as a civil engineer to chat about the young club he’s come to love. Innenstadt means inner city in German and is a nod to the city’s sizable German roots. “When we get to banging on the banners up there in the Bailey it makes a ton of noise and can be pretty intimidating.”
Die Innenstadt isn’t the only supporters group to rise up around FC Cincinnati, now in its second season, but they’re crucial in the march that happens every matchday. About a mile from Nippert Stadium is a bar called Mecklenburg’s Garden, where Die Innenstadt’s die-hards hoist a few barley pops and make a few toasts to good health and cheer in the beer garden. When sufficiently lubricated, they begin to walk up Vine St. to Corry Boulevard. They pick up other crews along the way, all with their own names and their own home bar. By the time they get to the stadium and march up to the Bailey, they’re warmed up – singing and drumming and making the cocky noises of seasoned soccer fans.
Supporters on the March
“We just go outside our bar and wait for the crowd to come up the road,” said Payne Rankin, a Cincinnati native late to his love affair with soccer but an evangelist now – converting members of his family who hated the game because it wasn’t gridiron or baseball and was too different to care about. “Before the Columbus Crew game, I looked back at the march and it was huge – 2000 people maybe. We kept picking ‘em up and it grew and grew.”
The Crew fans, a creditable band of 1000 easy, never had a chance. They were drowned out early and completely. Come to think of it, the Crew never had a chance on the pitch either. Even with Federico Higuain, Wil Trapp, Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay in the starting XI – damn near a full-strength side – they couldn’t counter the power of the Bailey, FC Cincinnati and this particular moment in time and space. The Crew dictated the play in the first-ever Ohio Derby, but FCC held firm and the Bailey blow the ball away from the danger zones.
“We’re up there perched like weird birds – It’s ominous and there’s smoke and flags and we’re just being annoying and looking down,” said 25-year-old Payne. His supporters group is called The Pride, and he’s found himself in the grip of an extraordinary sporting moment. “It’s impossible at the time to know how loud you’re being because you’re just one of many, but when we scored I’m telling you there were pretty stoic men crying in the stands.”
The only goal of the game came right under the Bailey at Nippert’s north end. It was just after the hour-mark of a game FC Cincinnati spent sitting back and bunkered in. “They definitely won the possession battle,” chuckled Wiedeman, who claims if ever an MLS bid were to come to the Queen City it would be “the second coming of Portland.”
The Crew took 19 shots to FCC’s five on the day. But the scorer was only ever going to be one man: Djiby Fall. He’s from faraway Senegal but he calls Cincinnati home now. A pro for well over a decade, he’s played in Denmark, Russia, Norway, UAE and Belgium. He’s the best header of a ball that Wiedeman’s ever seen. But at 32 and winding down, he’s just a gun for hire – a goal-slinger for money, right? Not quite. “I was emotional,” said Fall who’s scored three goals so far in the Open Cup and all of them match-winners. “When I saw our fans up there and the support they were giving us, how they reacted to my goal, I became very emotional.”
Fall Tears Fell Too
Fall fell to his knees and shed tears. He shed them just like the Bailey’s stoic men – some of whom didn’t give a damn for soccer a few years ago but are right in the thick of it now. “You saw it when he scored,” said Rankin, who says he’ll never forget that night. “Fall started celebrating like it was just another goal, and then it hit him: he fell to his knees and got emotional because he knew what it meant to all of us up there. He went from happy to just collapsing – all because of this crazy, beautiful, awesome, frustrating game.”
And that’s not it. It would be enough for a lifetime if it was, but there’s more to the story. These fans in this city, who’ve made something special where there was nothing but empty seats and potential before, get to do it all over again. The gods have blessed them with another home game in the Round of 16, and it’s well on its way to a sell-out when Chicago Fire and their stars come marching into town. Broadcasters, with their eagle eye for numbers and trends, have taken notice too. ESPN2 will air the game in a national broadcast - rare for the Open Cup before the Semifinal Round.
“We’ve got nothing to lose when the Fire come, just like we had nothing to lose when Columbus came,” said Wiedeman. “The pressure’s on them and they’ll have a lot to answer for to their fans if they slip up. If we do, our fans will be proud of us.” Rankin, one of those fans caught up in this singular moment in a quiet corner of the American Midwest, is ready to do his part – one loud, proud voice in a crowd: “All we can do as supporters is be as loud as we can and hope that makes a difference.”