A city metropolitan area that boasts 50,000 club soccer players, a professional soccer team that sold NFL levels of merchandise in its first year, and attendance records that were broken repeatedly and only by itself: these quick facts might seem more on par with Buenos Aires, rather than an American city. Yet the major league soccer team, FC Cincinnati, proudly claims the numbers.
The FC Cincinnati soccer team seemed to appear out of nowhere in 2015, repeatedly setting United Soccer League (USL) attendance records before becoming one of Major League Soccer’s expansion sites in 2017. It has shined a light on Ohio’s largest city as a somewhat unknown American soccer mecca and, with the help of Director of Soccer Operations Dan McNally, FC Cincinnati is offering a best-in-class experience for its fans in a home setting that is rivaling the best in worldwide soccer.
McNally, an English expat who arrived in Cincinnati via Florida and Montana, has been around the team since its inception—he was literally the first person hired by the organization prior to office space, team colors, or a single player to its name. McNally joined FC Cincinnati so early, in fact, that he worked almost entirely out of coffee shops, checking in regularly with General Manager Jeff Berding, who was still working for the Cincinnati Bengals at the time.
“For three months, I was on my own building this soccer operation and thinking through the stadium operations,” McNally says. The time not spent in cafés was instead spent around Berding’s kitchen table, later alongside future ticketing vice president Jeff Smith and a brand building expert Gary De Jesus. The FC team would make its world debut the following year.
McNally knew that to make a truly memorable experience for fans, the team’s home would have to feel like a stadium dedicated to soccer. McNally’s success is especially pertinent as for the past three seasons, the team’s home base has been University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, home to the university’s football (American, that is) program. “The key, for me, was the way we were able to turn Nippert into a professional soccer venue and, when you’re in it, it truly feels like that’s where you are,” McNally says. “It put our fanbase on a completely different level than any other club in our old league [the USL], and we were able to come right out of the gate as the biggest and the best; it gave us the best opportunity to make it to the major league.” FC Cincinnati set the USL record of averaging 21,199 fans in attendance during the 2017 season.
In making the leap to the MLS, the team committed to the building of a soccer-specific stadium located in the West End neighborhood of Cincinnati, the West End Stadium. Ground was broken on December 18, 2018. “I’ve been involved a lot in the behind-the-scenes soccer operations,” McNally says. “Everything from locker rooms to athletic treatment rooms to where the team will enter at the halfway line: these are very important details in soccer.”
One detail transitioning to the new stadium will be the FC Cincinnati supporter section, deemed “The Bailey.” Modelled after Liverpool’s famous supporter section “The Kop,” McNally said he wanted to bring the same passion and intensity to Cincinnati. The behind-the-goal section will be moving to West End Stadium in a bigger and brighter way, and McNally says it’s merely a matter of building on the club’s early success with building a fanbase.
McNally himself understands the unique passion for the game that has struggled to make its way to the US, but the timing may now be right with the back-to-back success of US Women’s World Cup teams, the US co-hosting of the 2026 Men’s World Cup, and the proliferation of club soccer participation in the States during the past decades. Growing up in Darwen, England, sandwiched between working-class soccer capitals Manchester and Liverpool, the director says he sees the same sort of blue-collar civic pride and working-class constitution in Cincinnati, qualities that he feels are absolute keys to great soccer cities.
“Cincinnati reminds me of those great European cities that embrace soccer,” McNally observes. “The people here are proud to be where they’re from, and we’re proud to give them a franchise they can be proud of.”
A Family Affair
Dan McNally may be making waves in Cincinnati, but he’s building on previous success out west. McNally became the winningest soccer coach of all time at the University of Montana-Billings where he also met his wife Jenny, and where his son Liam was born. Now with another son, Kellan, in tow, it brings the total number of soccer players in the McNally household up to three, and McNally says it’s the support of his family that’s helped get him where he is today.