A year ago Jeff Berding, then director of sales and public relations for the Cincinnati Bengals, took a phone call in his office at Paul Brown Stadium. It was Carl Lindner III, American Financial Group co-CEO, and he wanted to talk about fútbol not football.

For several months Berding and a few friends had been quietly exploring the possibility of launching a professional soccer team in Cincinnati.

Berding didn’t know it, but Lindner, who invited Berding to lunch, was about to turn that possibility into a reality.

“We talked about soccer and the opportunity to bring the game to Cincinnati,” Berding recalls.

Lindner had a long-standing interest in soccer, although Berding wasn’t aware of it. His son, Christopher, had played amateur soccer at a high level, and Lindner has said he was considering investing in a soccer franchise.

“At a certain point he expressed interest in conceivably being the majority owner with his family,” Berding says. “The conversation was: If it works, I’d like you to run the franchise. Would you be willing?” 

At that point the club didn’t have a place to play, any players or a coach, but Lindner’s backing suddenly ratcheted up the stakes. Berding agreed to be president and general manager of the new FC Cincinnati, one of the newest franchises in the United Soccer League, the largest pro soccer league in North America and a step below Major League Soccer.

The fledgling FC Cincinnati soccer club is still more than three months from taking the pitch at the renovated Nippert Stadium, but it has ignited the interest of local soccer fans. In less than two months after the club’s August coming out party more than 2,500 fans put down deposits for season tickets.

The team has signed four corporate sponsors: Toyota, United Dairy Farmers, UC Health and Legion Logistics; hired U.S. soccer legend John Harkes as its coach; and sold out its initial run of blue and orange team merchandise.

From the Cincinnati Comets, the indoor Cincinnati Kids and the Silverbacks to the Riverhawks and the Cincinnati Kings, a successful pro team has been a dream for local soccer fans for decades.

“For the first time ever, we have a lot of the ingredients we’ve never had before, with money being the biggest thing,” says D.J. Switzer, who’s followed pro soccer here for years and writes a soccer blog, Wrong Side of the Pond. “The Lindners have changed that. They’ve opened doors that have never been opened before for the professional game here. I think they have the right pieces to potentially be successful.” 

Berding, who spent nearly 20 years in the Bengals front office and served on Cincinnati City Council from 2005 to 2011, says he wasn’t planning to leave the Bengals to lead FC Cincinnati. As a soccer fan, he says, “I just thought it would be a cool thing for Cincinnati.” 

Auto dealer George Joseph, who’s known Berding since they attended St. Xavier and was an early investor, says “Jeff brings with him a unique knowledge of professional sports through his years with the Bengals” as well as extensive business and community ties as result of serving on Cincinnati City Council.

Growing up in Westwood, Berding says he didn’t love soccer although he was goalie on a youth league team.

“If you know anything about soccer, if you’re on a good soccer team, the goalie gets no action and the coach wouldn’t let me play anywhere else so I was bored,” he says. “When I went to St. X, I decided to play football.”

But when his children were growing up they started playing soccer and Berding began coaching SAY soccer. His son Jack, 16, plays select soccer and Berding got involved in the leadership of the eastside Hammer soccer club, serving as president of the merged Kings Hammer, the region’s second largest youth program.

“When you see good soccer, teams with real skills playing soccer the way it’s meant to be played,” he says. “It’s a beautiful sport to watch and it’s easy to get excited about.”

He thinks pro soccer’s time has come in Cincinnati.

“When you ask 18-49 year olds what’s your favorite sport to watch on TV,” he says, soccer is third behind the NFL and college football. “Five years ago soccer was at the bottom of the list, and 10 years ago it wasn’t on the list.”

In southern Ohio there are an estimated 56,000 active participants in youth soccer, among the highest per capita participation in the country.

“There’s tremendous interest in soccer,” he says. “At the youth level as well as people watching on TV, they just haven’t had a team here.”

In the wake of FC Cincinnati’s launch, the Cincinnati Saints, which has played here for several years, announced plans to leave the Queen City and move to Dayton.

Switzer, who’s done game casts for the Saints, says some fans who’ve backed earlier efforts to establish pro soccer here aren’t happy that those efforts haven’t gotten more acknowledgment from FC Cincinnati.

Dave Satterwhite, a financial planner and owner of the Cincinnati Saints, declined t0 comment. “I have given six years of my life to building professional soccer in Cincinnati. It is no longer my burden,” he said in an email.

While serving as Kings Hammer president, Berding says he became aware that the USL franchise for Cincinnati was available. The Dutch Capital Group, which owned the Dayton Dutch Lions soccer franchise, was interested in moving to Cincinnati. It agreed to sell its franchise to FC Cincinnati in exchange for small stake in the new enterprise and arranged a meeting with the USL.

Berding says when he, Gary DeJesus, a local marketing executive and Berding’s predecessor at Kings Hammer, and George Joseph began talking with the USL the league made it clear four things were essential for a new franchise:

• Having experienced sports management. 

• Playing matches in a major facility. 

• Having investors committed to the long term.

• Demonstrating sufficient fan support.

After deep-pockets ownership, having a place to play was critical.

“Respectfully, you can’t call yourself a professional team when you’re playing on a high school field,” Berding says.

Initially, he approached the Bengals about leasing Paul Brown Stadium and the Cincinnati Reds about Great American Ballpark. When those discussions didn’t develop, Berding approached both Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati and got an enthusiastic response from UC about using the newly renovated Nippert.

At that point, FC Cincinnati, which also included venture capitalist Jack Wyant and Middletown businessman Steve Hightower, hired former Columbus Crew President Mark McCullers to negotiate a lease with UC.

The final piece of the puzzle is generating fan support.

“We think if you build community support to an average paid attendance of 10,000 fans, you’ve proven that soccer works here in Cincinnati,” Berding says.

FC Cincinnati’s made no secret that its ultimate goal is to move from the USL to the MLS, the highest professional level. Berding says the model for Cincinnati could be Orlando.

“They started in the USL in 2010 and they’re playing in the MLS this year,” he says.

Switzer thinks getting to the MLS may be a tougher nut to crack.

“MLS has a lot of cities vying for limited spots. There are other strong candidates [for MLS franchises] that have just as strong a soccer culture as Cincinnati does,” he says. 

Can FC Cincinnati be Cincinnati’s third major league team behind the Bengals and the Reds, which has the most seasonal overlap with soccer?

“The average sports fan here will still gravitate to the Reds,” says Switzer. “You can’t go anywhere without the Reds being part of the conversation. That’s a big obstacle.”

But Berding, who says he isn’t giving up his Reds season tickets, says there’s room for FC Cincinnati. The team will play most of its home games when the Reds are on the road and the team will have a built-in fan base among UC’s 35,000 students. He says his experience tells him the success of one franchise helps the others. “We saw that when I was with the Bengals,” he says.

Berding sees another reason why FC Cincinnati will succeed.

“Everyone wants Cincinnati to be successful as a community, and soccer can be an important growth element in terms of [attracting] millennials, in terms of international companies and workers recruited to come here. Soccer can be one more drawing card for us. We’re a major league city, we want Cincinnati to be successful, so let’s get on board and support this.”