FC Cincinnati invests in The Cov

Photo 1: Covington’s partnership with FC Cincinnati Foundation will bring both a kid-size mini pitch to Austinburg  and the organization’s Soccer Unites youth program. This photo provided by FCC Foundation is from a ribbon-cutting from a mini pitch previously built in Price Hill, Cincinnati. 

Photo 2: The proposed site plan for the renovation of Austinburg Neighborhood Park.

Photo 3: Covington Parks & Rec sponsored a skills camp on Saturdays over the summer.

New Major League Soccer ‘mini pitch’ in Austinburg to level playing field for youth

 (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two news releases today detailing new amenities and opportunities created by the Covington Parks & Recreation Division. The first release described the grand opening Saturday of the 18-hole Covington Disc Golf Course in Devou Park.)

COVINGTON, Ky. – With its signature winged lion and bold blue-and-orange crest, there will be no mistaking that FC Cincinnati is coming to Covington.

The professional soccer team's foundation is building a “mini pitch” – a kid-size field bordered by a rebound board system designed to keep the ball in play at all times -- in the city’s Austinburg Neighborhood Park, poised to provide kids in the community with a place to learn, practice, and play soccer. (Adults will likely have some fun on the field too).

The City has signed an agreement with FC Cincinnati Foundation to build the field, the seventh of 10 the foundation has proposed for the region by 2024. The community outreach program presents youth and adults with easy access to the sport, organized instructional soccer programs for children, and a safe space for children to learn the game.

The field will fit neatly within long-term plans for the redevelopment of the Austinburg park, located at 15th Street and Eastern Avenue.

“It’s really going to be the focal point of the park,” said Brandon Holmes, Covington’s director of Neighborhood Services.

The mini pitch will be available at no cost for youth and adult recreational use, Covington Parks & Rec officials said.

As part of its partnership with FC Cincinnati Foundation, Covington Parks & Rec will introduce the organization’s Soccer Unites youth program, which provides equipment, a curriculum, and support to introduce the sport to children in the area.

“The soccer league that we ran in the spring was based off that program,” said Parks & Rec Manager Ben Oldiges, who ran FC Cincinnati starter programs north of the Ohio River for three years. “We’ll be running seasonal soccer programs and probably have adult leagues as well. We’ll be doing all kinds of organized and structured programming at the mini pitch.”

To avoid conflicts between users, the City likely will implement a reservation system similar to what it uses for park shelter use.

Officials from FCC Foundation said the mini pitch – its first in Northern Kentucky – will have widespread impact.

“FC Cincinnati Foundation aims to improve the lives of children in our region through soccer,” said Kate Solomon, its Vice President of Community Relations & Executive Director. “Mini pitches help us realize this mission by making soccer available to everyone in a safe environment. We are thrilled to bring one of our mini pitches to the city of Covington, and in particular a neighborhood seeking more opportunities to play soccer.”

More about the team’s extensive community investment activities can be seen at FC Cincinnati Foundation.

What it’ll look like

Site work has already begun on the field, which will be built by The Motz Group.

Oldiges said the City hoped to celebrate its opening later this fall with a ribbon-cutting, but that will depend on weather and FC Cincinnati’s post-season schedule.

The “pitch” -- essentially another word for the field soccer is played on – will have a synthetic turf surface that measures 98 feet by 44 feet.

In addition to the rebound board system, it’ll have integrated goals built into the site, seating that will be constructed outside the fenced area, and the signature FCC logo and branding emblazoned on the field and fencing. FC Cincinnati Foundation will pay for the mini pitch construction costs.

Before the grading of the site, the park included a picnic shelter, playground, ball field, and a basketball court.

A presentation to the Covington Board of Commissioners last month described the park’s proposed new look and amenities, including a renovated basketball court, a nature play/playground area, a pickleball court, a restroom building, two shelters, and parking areas on either end of the park.

Long sought after

Oldiges expects the soccer mini pitch will become one of Covington’s most used sites for recreation.

In fall 2021, the City’s Economic Development and Parks & Rec teams surveyed roughly 300 residents online and hosted several community events where residents were encouraged to weigh in what they’d like to see in the rebuilt Austinburg Park.

“When we were doing our community engagement events, soccer was one of the biggest requests for the park,” said Oldiges. “We’re really excited about the mini pitch, and it brings us a lot of satisfaction to be able to deliver to the community an amenity that they wanted.”

Leveling the field

For Covington City Commissioner Shannon Smith, the mini soccer pitch is the realization of a passion project of sorts: to level the playing field so all children in Covington have access to the sport.

Smith, who played college, semi-professional, and professional soccer (with the semi-pro Cincinnati Lady Hawks and Rayo Vallecan, Spain’s professional football/soccer club) before attending law school, championed the effort to secure the mini pitch for city.

She said the idea came to light from John Stanton, the director of external affairs for Kenton County who is a former FC Cincinnati Foundation Board member.

“He said he’d like to get them over to Kentucky and I said, ‘Well, you mean Covington,’ ” Smith recalled.

Stanton connected Smith with key individuals at FC Cincinnati Foundation and she launched into an impassioned lobbying effort.

She talked to Oldiges and his Parks & Rec team about the idea and got City Manager Ken Smith involved. Along with FC Cincinnati Foundation, they toured potential spaces, and Austinburg Neighborhood Park quickly became the consensus site.

Smith sees the mini pitch as – no pun intended -- leveling the playing field for Covington youth, many of whom she said love the sport but lack the materials and resources to play.

According to the Kentucky Youth Soccer Association, there are no youth soccer clubs in Covington, and there are only four youth soccer clubs within 10 miles – in Fort Thomas, Highland Heights, Wilder, and Florence. Proximity and affordability to play the sport often make it difficult, if not prohibitive, for many families whose children want to participate. The FCC Foundation mini pitch in Austinburg Park will help Covington remove those obstacles.

“Here, you see that there are so many populations that love soccer, but there aren’t a lot of materials and outlets for them to play,” Smith said. “This allows us to reach that audience, grow the sport, and invest in the community.”

‘Bad Boys & Girl’

Smith speaks from personal experience. Growing up in the tiny town of Brandenburg in Meade County, she found herself the only girl on her local soccer team.

“My team was called Bad Boys and Girl. I was the only girl on the team,” said Smith. Her father, realizing his daughter had talent, would later drive her an hour to and from a soccer club three times a week in a neighboring city so she could get more training.

“I remember feeling uncomfortable because everyone around me had a lot of money, and I did not,” Smith said.

It wasn’t until she was playing professional soccer overseas that she was struck by the ease of access that every child had there to play the sport. 

“When I went overseas, everyone played – everyone had access – and everyone had the opportunity to grow through the sport,” Smith said. “FC Cincinnati brings excitement and an investment to the sport here. It’s a place where kids can play and it’s an investment in our city. This is a really, really big deal.”

# # #