As a young athlete, you always look up to the professional players and the teams, and when you are able to go and watch in person, you always dream and wish that could be you someday.
When Matt Bahner laces up his boots for FC Cincinnati in 2017, thousands of young fans from his hometown will be looking up to him. The West Chester native, a highly-touted defender, is returning to the Queen City for his fifth season as a professional soccer player. Bahner signed a contract with FC Cincinnati after spending the last two seasons with Jacksonville Armada FC in the North American Soccer League.
As Bahner was growing up and winning youth championships for Cincinnati United Premier, the Cincinnati area lacked a prominent professional soccer franchise, so he did what any logical young soccer fan would do. He latched onto the Columbus Crew, the closest MLS team.
“Because of that I also followed and loved to watch Brian McBride. When I was younger and going through my youth club days, I was a forward and therefore I liked to adapt my game at the time to a lot of what Brian did as a player. I remember going to a game when I was younger, and it was a huge deal for me at the time,” Bahner said. “As a young athlete, you always look up to the professional players and the teams, and when you are able to go and watch in person you always dream and wish that could be you someday.”
Despite the void at the professional level, Bahner recognized the emerging popularity of soccer around the Queen City. He recalls the rivalries that developed at the club, high school, and college levels.
“I definitely think there was always a good soccer culture in Cincinnati because of that, and I know a lot of people grew up playing the game in the area. Because of all the different teams it was hard for one team to get the most support, but now with a professional team that the entire city and soccer fans can get around, it is possible to see that Cincinnati is and can be a great soccer city,” he said.
Bahner graduated from Lakota West High School, and then headed to the University of Cincinnati to continue his education and play soccer for the Bearcats. He had a standout career playing as a midfielder for UC. During his four years as a starter he appeared in 68 matches, tallying 13 goals and 9 assists. He was named UC’s Newcomer of the Year in 2008, All-Big East second team in 2010, and OCSA All-Ohio first team in 2012.
The UC soccer teams played home matches at Gettler Stadium during Bahner’s time as a Bearcat, as they continue to do today. When he walked past Nippert Stadium in UC’s Richard E. Lindner Varsity village, it was impossible for him to envision that the iconic football stadium would ever be packed with rabid soccer fans.
“I never imagined that Nippert would become such a great atmosphere for a soccer game. I always loved the stadium as a student-athlete, it is one of the coolest college stadiums in the country in my opinion because of the way its setup; sunken in and right in the middle of campus” Bahner said. “The [FC Cincinnati] organization has done a great job in helping to create a great soccer field to play on, and the fans have helped to create a great atmosphere to play in.”
Bahner’s first professional contract took him away from Cincinnati. He signed with the Harrisburg City Islanders and played for the USL PRO team in 2013 and 2014. During his second season with the City Islanders, he helped lead Harrisburg on an improbable run to the USL PRO Championship finals. His outstanding play as a defender that season earned USL PRO All-League Second Team honors.
His performances got him noticed by the technical staff for Jacksonville Armada FC, a team that had accepted a bid to begin play in the NASL in 2015. Bahner was transferred to the Armada for an undisclosed fee. His play on the back line continued to impress, but financial difficulties put the club’s viability in question and forced the NASL to take control of the team ahead of the 2017 season.
“I enjoyed my time in Jacksonville a lot, and it was a very unfortunate end, but I knew FC Cincinnati was a great organization,” Bahner said. “And having the ability to come and play in my hometown was a dream of mine and one that you don’t always get, so I knew it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
News of FC Cincinnati’s wildly successful inaugural 2016 campaign reached Bahner all the way in Florida.
“It was hard to miss considering all of the headlines they were making with the fan support and ticket sales they were getting each and every game, especially the Crystal Palace game,” Bahner said.
He continued, “Everyone would always ask me about it and see what I thought about it. I would always say that I knew Cincinnati was a great soccer city, having grown up in it, but I honestly never expected it to be this big. Cincinnati has always been a city that supports and gets around its professional teams, so its great to see that FC Cincy is included in that now.”
What did he miss most about Cincinnati during his four years in Pennsylvania and Florida? Skyline Chili, of course. Bahner calls it a staple of a Cincinnatian’s diet.
“You can get it in cans and make it yourself, but nothing compares to getting it in the city itself,” he said.
When one leaves home, though, it is not only the things that are missed, but also the people. Leaving your friends and family behind can be difficult.
“When you move away from home, you always leave a little piece of you behind, and its tough to stay in touch with people as much as you like,” Bahner said. “When Cincinnati started a soccer franchise, there was a desire in my heart to someday play in my hometown. I now get to live that and having the ability to have my friends and family around me to enjoy that makes it that much better.”
When Bahner’s City Islanders squads traveled to Ohio to face the Dayton Dutch Lions, he usually had the largest cheering section in the stadium. He credits his ability to become a professional soccer player, in part, to the support that his family has always provided.
“I owe a lot of my success to my family. My parents were so supportive when I was growing up, and still are to this day. I played three sports when I was growing up, so there were a lot of practices for me to get to, and they both had education jobs. So I certainly made it tough on them, but they always got me to wherever I needed to be on time. They made a lot of personal and financial sacrifices because of all the tournaments and traveling that each team did,” Bahner said.
He recalls that the sacrifices increased when soccer became his primary sport. His parents had to tote him and his brother to events all across the country.
He continued, “And to this day my parents and brother, other family, and friends continue to support me and help me to improve as a player and person, and I know they are all just as excited as I am to be able to play in front of them on a more regular basis.”
Now that his deal with FC Cincinnati is official, the response from the Queen City has been overwhelming. It reinforces his decision to come home.
“It means more than I could have ever imagined. The amount of support and the amount of people that have reached out to me since my return home was announced by the club has been unbelievable. It makes it that much more special for me,” said Bahner.
If there is any extra pressure to perform well in front of hometown fans, Bahner is not feeling it yet. In fact, he relishes the opportunity.
He said, “I think it adds more excitement for myself knowing that I will have people in the stands who support me on a personal level, and if anything I think that will help me be more comfortable and allow me to play the way I know I can.”
And what is the way that he knows he can play?
“I enjoy to get up and down the field on the flanks, helping to get balls in the box and create chances to score, but I know that as a defender my job is to ultimately not give up goals and so that is what I am committed to do,” Bahner said. “Ultimately, I pride myself on being a soccer player, rather than a specific position, and am willing to do whatever role I am asked to do by the coach and will do it to the best of my abilities.”
Bahner admits to not having in-depth discussions with Head Coach John Harkes about his role on the team yet. Those conversations are planned for the beginning of preseason camp. Bahner’s self-assessment, though, appears to fit with what Harkes asked of his outside backs last season.
When asked about his goals for the upcoming season, Bahner focused on the team rather than himself.
“Certainly our main goal as a team is to win a USL Championship, and I want to do anything that I can to help make that happen. Overall, I want to continue to help build on the momentum that the club created last year on and off the field,” he said.
The landscape of professional soccer has changed immensely since Bahner was a youth player, nowhere more than Cincinnati. And there is nowhere he would rather win a championship.