Rose Lavelle image credit: GetPublished!/Stephen Zinser (left) and Tana Weingartner/WVXU (right)

Written by Keith Good, Library Services Assistant, Green Township Branch Library

We held our breaths as Rose Lavelle sprinted through Dutch defenders during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup. Cincinnati soccer had seen it before: the promising run called offside, the shot glancing off the crossbar. Yet still, we hoped. Right foot planted on the 18-yard line, Lavelle buried her left-footed try in the Dutch net, sealing the U.S. Women's National Team (USWNT) 2019 Women’s World Cup victory. Our cheer felt like an exhale long-held.

Added to FC Cincinnati’s rise in the United Soccer League (USL), it seems Cincinnati soccer—at last—is having its moment. Not bad for a city that, according to one former player, “probably never will accept soccer. ”

A New Soccer Millennium

Cincinnati and soccer go back further than most realize. A dig through the Library archives shows that in the early 1800s, pupils at Woodward High—renowned as one of the nation’s first public schools—improvised games of what was then called “football ” in city streets. Almost two hundred years later, the game is a local staple. Surveys consistently rank Queen City soccer programs among the nation’s best. It’s no wonder Cincinnati professional soccer has flourished over the past twenty years. There are more teams than you'd think! 

  • Cincinnati Futsal - plays in the Major League Futsal Pro Division. Futsal is a 5-player, indoor version of soccer.
  • Cincinnati Sirens FC - compete in the Ohio Valley Region of the Women’s Premier Soccer League
  • FC Cincinnati - began to play in the United Soccer League. Aided by a Major League Soccer (MLS)-slaying run through the 2017 US Open Cup and devoted fans, FCC now plays in MLS.
  • The Cincinnati Swerve and the Queen City Sonics - are semi-pro teams in the Premier Arena Soccer League.
  • The Cincinnati Saints (2013 – 2015) played in the Professional Arena Soccer League. Their sister club, the Lady Saints, played in the Women’s Premier Soccer League in 2014-15.
  • The Cincinnati Kings played in the USL’s lower tiers between 2005 and 2012, with a partner club, Kings Indoor (2008 – 2013).
  •  The Cincinnati Excite played in the American Indoor Soccer League (AISL) from 2004-2008. Aided by League MVP Tiest Sondaal, the Excite won the 2006 AISL Championship.

A Cincinnati "Zoo" 

There would be no Lavelle, Sirens, or FC Cincinnati, though, if not soccer’s resurgence in the 1990s. The inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and America’s hosting the 1994 Men’s Cup stoked American interest in the game. After decades’ dormancy, a veritable zoo of pro teams mascots prowled Cincinnati.

  •  The Cincinnati Riverhawks played in the semi-pro Premier Development League in 1997 and in the professional A-League from 1998-2003. The Riverhawks women’s side, the Ladyhawks, played in the USL W-League (formerly the W-League) from 2002-06.
  • Starting in 1995, the Cincinnati Silverbacks played indoor soccer as part of the National Professional Soccer League. Despite a totally rad logo—a screaming neon gorilla in red and purple—the team folded in 1998.
  • The Cincinnati Cheetahs played in the United System of Soccer Leagues—a forerunner to the USL—from 1994-95.
  • The Cheetah’s sister club, the Cincinnati Leopards, became the city’s first pro women’s team. They played only one year—1995—as a founding member of the W-League. 

Kids & Comets

Cincinnati went without pro soccer for nearly two decades prior to the Cheetahs. 1979’s Cincinnati Kids played as a charter member of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). Part-owned by local legend Pete Rose, the Kids played their way into the ‘79 MISL playoffs. A mostly-absent general manager and problems booking Riverfront Coliseum, however, doomed the team. The Kids lost in the playoffs’ opening round and folded after only one season. 

The Kids’ quick fall echoed the Cincinnati Comets, often touted as Cincy’s first pro soccer team. The Comets streaked through the American Soccer League (ASL) from 1972-75. Boasting vibrant orange uniforms and 2-time MVP Ringo Cantillo, the Comets won 1972’s inaugural ASL championship and finished second in ‘73.

The Comets’ story—like the Kids after—is one of flash and fizzle. From the first kick, Comets investors hemorrhaged money. The rival North American Soccer League overshadowed the Comets’ ASL. Even with a championship, even with perennial All-Star Cantillo, the Comets folded in early 1976.  Dejected, Cantillo took a parting shot at the city, declaring Cincinnati would never accept pro soccer.

Cincy ‘Rocks

But Cantillo was wrong even back then. Cincinnati embraced pro soccer 78 years before any Cheetahs, Comets, or Kids. Newspaper accounts from the Library archives say the city’s first pro soccer match kicked off at 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, 1894.

The Cincinnati Shamrocks hosted the Indianapolis Caledonians at East End Park (now Schmidt Fields). The admission was 25 cents. Even though the Caledonians won the day, 1-0, reports describe a large crowd, despite a nearby University of Cincinnati rugby match.

“Association Football” and “Soccer Football” leagues formed in the Shamrocks’ wake. English all-stars crossed the pond to play Queen City friendlies. The youthful verve of Woodward boys kicking “foot-ball” in the street never really left. From Shamrocks to Comets, Leopards to Lavelle, Cincinnati has always been a soccer town. Rose Lavelle may have netted the winning shot, but the beautiful game has been sprinting down Cincinnati’s pitch from the first whistle.

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