The stadium is bright with snow. A thick layer shrouds the field and the stands, muting the colors and muffling the sounds. Beneath the winter cloak, there is change: creatures are stirring, seeds are germinating in soil left rich from past generations. The white topcoat may as well be a canvas, ready for paint.
Everyone behind the scenes, bustling away in their offices lit brilliantly by the winter glare, shares a certain enthusiasm.
In the face of two middling years on the field, after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the team has enjoyed a massive swell in season ticket sales (the number has practically doubled in the last two years), made significant upgrades to the stadium (a wider concourse, brand new video board and sound system, etc.), and led the MLS a year ago in attendance growth.
So much has changed in the last several months, yet the drive to make soccer an American sport remains as strong as it was the day the late, great Lamar Hunt dropped his own twenty-eight-and-a-half-million on the barrelhead and built Crew Stadium.
On the field, the new head coach wants to see a “deeper connection between the team and the fans.” Off it, the team’s new ownership, its front office, and its ever-jubilant team ambassador beat the drum every day to deepen the footprint and expand the reach – to make The Crew a part of you.
Selling the Team
“We’re in a unique place with The Crew, in Columbus, in this sport, in this country. Going into our nineteenth season, we have tradition. We have history. But we’re still very young. We’re nimble, flexible, hungry, entrepreneurial. Those attributes are ones that I associate with this city as well.
“I think when we look back twenty years from now, people are going to see more clearly the role we play, the role professional sports plays in the city’s history.”
Mark McCullers copped to getting a little over-dramatic when talking about the team he’s helped manage over the last fifteen-plus years, but he has every right to be excited. So many of the initiatives he’s enacted are starting to truly blossom, from community outreach to season ticket ownership to youth development programs.
His new(ish) role as team president is one of a number of changes that have come about since Anthony Precourt purchased the team in July of last year. Stepping down as general manager, he hands the reins in many ways to Gregg Berhalter, the newly-appointed Sporting Director and Head Coach.
Berhalter will handle not only the coaching duties but player personnel decisions as well. He is, as his online bio purports, the “boss of the Black & Gold.” A soccer guy from the feet up, he nevertheless is not solely concerned with Xs and Os.
“There’s a young, developing culture here,” Berhalter said, speaking with all the unyielding certainty you’d expect from a coach. “That’s the beauty of it – nothing is set in stone. We can make it whatever we want. Fan interaction, fan experience…all that stuff can be developed.”
As development goes, Senior VP of Marketing Mike Malo knows the score. He too is on the front lines, working to fly the Crew flag high for all to see, and he knows that tapping into specific demographics can help bolster an already loyal fan base.
“We have a uniquely authentic experience that’s different from any other professional sports experience in the region. Our fans are part of shaping that experience. They’re participatory. The supporters’ soccer culture that they’ve created – it doesn’t really exist the same way in other sports. Younger fans want to feel connected in a deeper way.”
All three men spoke with the vibrancy of youth. Through each set of eyes exists a similar future: a throng twenty-thousand strong packing Crew Stadium on Saturday nights, bellowing out swelling soccer cheers, waving flags and blowing horns.
“Fans chanting, shouting in unison…it’s like watching a movie,” said Berhalter. “It’s on another level.”
There’s a shine to the club. A burnish, like a freshly waxed sports car. You can see the reflections of a resplendent past and of the future everybody hopes for: bigger, better, more.
Sons of Soccer
So much of that hope resides in the youth the team and the entire organization continues to encourage and inspire. The sun has come up and gone down on a generation of Columbus soccer fans. Kids everywhere play soccer, sure. But if you’re between 18 and 25, you probably don’t remember a time when Columbus didn’t have its Crew.
Other sports have fifty or a hundred years of records and tradition. Those loyalties get passed down like religion and politics. One can be born into an Indians family. One can be born into a Reds family. The Crew kids, on the other hand, are probably another ten years away.
“The grandfather-son connection, the generational loyalty, it hasn’t happened just yet,” said Malo. “We have work to do there. But now we have that first generation to start passing down.”
At the core of that movement is one of The Crew’s many jewels: the Crew Soccer Academy and Crew Juniors developmental programs.
Having produced numerous national championship teams in the Under-20 and Under-19 leagues, the program is consistently rated in the top ten such programs nationally and churns out plenty of MLS players. McCullers spoke to its importance.
“It’s a critical part of who we are. First and foremost, it’s a player development model that can connect with our senior team and provide a pipeline for kids who aspire to play for The Crew. We’ve got seven players under contract from our youth program. That’s its primary function.
“It also gives us coverage geographically. When it’s complete, we’ll have partnerships in every state that touches Ohio. But the ability to connect with families and kids who are playing the sport and use that as a relationship-building mechanism is extremely valuable.”
It’s easy to sometimes see soccer as plastic cones, orange wedges, and children of the desperately uncoordinated skittering around a tattered all-purpose field in fruitless pursuit. But it is changing. It is growing.
Ohio, it turns out, is kind of a hotbed for new soccer talent.
If there’s a player that embodies the directive of those youth programs, it’s Gahanna native Wil Trapp.
He’s a Homegrown: a player specifically designated and tracked as such in the world of the MLS. He is not team captain. That designation goes to Frederico Higuain. He is not the team’s most prolific scorer – that would be Ghanaian Dominic Oduro.
Trapp’s just freshly 21 years old, in fact, and while he became a regular starter to close last season, he still has just sixteen appearances at the MLS level. Nevertheless, his image is emblazoned on the club website’s front page. His name just seems to pop up, regardless of where the conversation happened to originate.
He’s not without accolades, of course. He’s got them in spades. But perhaps his most intriguing trait is being a Homegrown. Trapp is one of several such players who’ve made playing pro soccer a real ambition for Columbus youth.
“I started at the Academy as a freshman in high school, the first year it began. Growing up in Columbus, you had guys in the early days like Brian McBride, Brian Maisonneuve, Frankie Hejduk – you idolize them. For young soccer players in Columbus, The Crew is the team. That’s it.
“After my second season at the University of Akron, they decided they wanted to sign me. I didn’t really feel the full emotion of it until I got to play. Once you get on the field, and you get little kids watching just like you used to…it’s weird. But it’s wonderful.”
Coach Berhalter weighed in on Trapp as well.
“He’s clearly the leader of that Homegrown pack in terms of where he is with his game right now. We have varying levels of Homegrowns on our roster, but Wil’s a unique guy. He doesn’t need [the path to stardom] to be determined for him. He’s going to determine his own boundaries. For us, it’s just guiding him through that process.”
This is the way of things in other countries. Children grow up watching soccer, wanting to be soccer stars, and some of them do just that. For Trapp, it just came naturally.
For The Crew, going global is an ongoing goal.
Crew World Order
When the U.S. Men’s National Team squared off against Mexico last September, it brought a rarely seen furor to Crew Stadium, even at professional football games. After the second U.S. goal, the chant soared into space.
Fans raised banners in unison. Millions tuned in to watch. International media spilled from their rooms, cackling into microphones in excitement over an event that to some people is still ‘just soccer’.
To those more in-the-know, Columbus continues to grow in reputation as the warm, nurturing bosom of the USMNT and American soccer in general. The Men’s National Team has played in Crew Stadium ten times, has never lost, and has surrendered just a single goal.
Tickets to that qualifying match versus Mexico (sold by lottery due to overwhelming interest) went for exorbitant amounts. The telecast showed the stadium filled to bursting. Alive. Raucous. Organic.
One has to admit, there’s something vaguely magical about the marriage.
Going into another World Cup year, The Crew again has the opportunity to capitalize on the natural soccer high created by the most watched sporting event on Earth. Somewhere behind the seemingly unrelenting organizational optimism, the urge to push the sport forward stirs.
“We’ve got a very loyal core of fans. In order for us to attain our vision, we need to attract more casual fans,” Malo admitted. “We need to make an emotional connection with people. The World Cup will help strike that chord.
“The reason Lamar Hunt was so adamant about bringing soccer to the U.S. is that he went to the World Cup back in the 1960s. He was so connected to the game, he was such a visionary, he knew it had to be part of this country’s DNA.”
The extent to which it is part of this country’s DNA is certainly debatable. Not even the heartiest hooligans in the ranks would claim soccer is much more than a fifth wheel in the scheme of the national sports landscape. Still, it might be that the sport is still small enough, its movements still intricate enough, its fans still charmingly crazy enough, its stars still humble enough…to be cool.
A Call to Muster
“Soccer players are fans of the sport and fans of promoting the sport. Everyone is different, and every player has his own attitude, but from what I’ve seen, from what we’re trying to promote as an organization, we’re a community-based team. You’ll see our players out in the city, hanging out. Our noses aren’t in the air – that’s just soccer players in general.”
It’s cold outside still. Frankie Hejduk strides into the Crew offices, bundled up but unencumbered, sporting a pair of Crew-branded plastic knockoff Wayfarers and a scarf that swallows him. He’s got a cup of what one presumes to be coffee and a lot of hair. He’s all sideburns and smiles. This is his job.
At least, this is the part of his job that entails being in the office, speaking to a local magazine writer. It’s what he does when he’s not out reading books to kids, playing pick-up soccer games, testing beer for quality, and spreading the good word of The Crew.
As comparatively unappealing as it must have been for a former surf champion to sit in a fluorescent box for half an hour, the 39-year-old father of three was practically giddy discussing the prospects for The Crew, its fans, and the city.
“When I was growing up, [soccer] just wasn’t accessible. Now, it’s a hundred percent different. These guys, the Wil Trapps, the Chad Barsons – they’ve had guys to look up to in the MLS, on The Crew, guys they can watch play. They’re ingrained with our brand of soccer.
“You’ve got the players now who know what MLS soccer is about, and you’ve got a great, really experienced coaching staff. These guys know what it takes to succeed at this level, at the national level. They’ve been there.”
Beyond the on-the-field product, Frankie spoke willingly of the kind of open relationship he and other players have enjoyed with their fans. There is an intimacy to it all that doesn’t feel manufactured, a sense that ‘soccer star’ might just be a bit more accessible than ‘basketball star’ or ‘football star’. It’s probably a product of the sport, a game that is – as Frankie puts it – a lot more like chess than checkers. A subtle game. A gentleman’s game.
And what of the game itself? The finer points? It’s agreed that Columbus is becoming more soccer-savvy. But what does one say to the loutish ‘Murican sports doof who can’t abide a game that might, at its end, finish zero to zero? Frankie has an answer for that, too.
“If you want to call a goal seven points, every corner kick two points, then great – do it. Make the score whatever you want it to be. A touchdown, a three-point shot, whatever you call it. It’s kind of just one point.”
Truth. Somewhere in there might have been a joke about how Browns fans should be all in, as they’re not used to seeing many points scored anyway. But it didn’t come from Frankie.
No, Frankie is a self-admitted “kill ‘em with kindness” kind of guy. Which, incidentally, makes him just the man for the job of leading the march. A beer in one hand, a flag in the other, a rallying cry on his lips: ‘Bring your lungs!’
“The writing on the wall is there. It’s time to take it to the next level.”
The Crew kicks off their 19th season March 8 at D.C. United. Their home opener is slated for March 22 against Philadelphia. For more, visit www.thecrew.com.