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Out of the Ashes

Without even a minute on the clock in the final match of the 2015 MLS season, Crew fans watched goalkeeper Steve Clark receive a back pass in the box, dribble to his left, and plant to send the ball to one of his fullbacks. Standard operating procedure. Trouble was, Portland forward Diego Valeri had been on a dead sprint the whole time.

“It was a freak moment of carelessness,” said Crew fan Colin Northrup.

Valeri executed a perfectly timed slide, netting the ball and recording the fastest goal in MLS Cup history at 27 seconds. Before that first minute was even up, the state of Ohio had already put hands to face, taken them away, and let loose a collective sigh of gloomy resignation.

Six minutes later, when the Timbers headed home their second less-than-legitimate goal (more on that in a moment), the writing was on the wall. The same writing there’d been for Cavalier fans back in June and for Buckeye fans in November: Wait ‘Til Next Year.

Ohio football fans from way back may balk at the emotional fallout resulting from The Gift. After all, this is Columbus, Ohio. Football still means football, and soccer still means soccer.

But it was, for the gold-and-black-blooded faithful, a letdown of significant magnitude. Not only was the 2-1 loss a tough pill for Crew fans, the manner in which the match developed was not ideal for the state of soccer in the United States.

A 2-0 lead in the first seven minutes does not result in people racing to television sets to tune in. In truth, the TV viewership numbers plummeted 38 percent from 2014: no doubt in part due to the fact that the participating teams represented smaller markets, but the nature of the match could not have helped.

Not only was the opening salvo eye-roll-worthy, Portland’s second unanswered goal—practically a coffin nail in the beautiful game of soccer—came shortly after an inexplicably missed out-of-bounds call that would have put the ball in the hands of the Crew.

Crew midfielder Tony Tchani assumed the ball, visibly out by a significant margin as replay would confirm, would be called out.

“I kind of just let him go,” Tchani said after the match. “I [thought] they’re probably going to give the ball back. And then they went and scored against us and I felt pretty bad. … I just don’t get it. The ball was on my feet; if the ball is at my feet, I’m not going to stop if it wasn’t out. It was probably a yard out.”

For the cherry on top, the Portland man who sent the assisting cross on the subsequent play was offside.

Crew players were largely reticent. They took it on the chin. Fans, like Northrup, had a tougher time reaching acceptance.

“It was disappointing for United States soccer to have a game of that magnitude cower in the shadow of an unforgiveable mistake by the officials,” Northrup said. “Both teams played a good match after the nonsense, and Portland had some really brilliant offensive creations that would have been much easier to swallow had they materialized.

“I wanted my home team to win, but more than anything, I wanted a world-class championship soccer match. What I got was a sad joke.”

          

Out of the ashes of this disaster emerges a club poised to continue its winning ways.

The Crew will return veteran leadership in defender Michael Parkhurst and forward Federico Higuaín, entering their third and fifth seasons with the club respectively, and are joined in 2016 by U.S. mainstay forward Conor Casey. The big story from 2015 was the triumphant return of forward Kei Kamara. Kamara began his MLS career with the Crew after being drafted ninth overall in 2006. He scored five goals in two seasons before being traded away.

As fate would have it, Kamara’s encore in Columbus turned out to be a career year that saw him score 22 goals in 32 appearances to lead the second-ranked goal-scoring offense in the MLS and finish tied for the league lead with eventual MVP Sebastian Giovinco of Toronto FC.

Joining Kamara in the front line is, well, Kamara. Ola Kamara is a new addition to the Crew, a Discovery Signing who at just 26 years old already has sixty professional and international goals to his credit. The Norwegian-born striker adds punch to an already formidable Columbus attack.

The Crew had three of its young star midfielders—Tony Tchani (26 years old), Ethan Finlay (25), and Wil Trapp (23)—all record caps for the U.S. Men’s National Team this year in recent international friendlies against Iceland and Canada, a major step in their respective careers.

Rounding out the solid young core are promising young Danish winger Emil Larsen, fellow winger and Congolese national Cedrick Mabwati, and defenders Harrison Afful, Corey Ashe, and Waylon Francis, all of whom enter the 2016 season under the age of 30.

In goal remains Steve Clark, a confident, talented keeper, surely ready to exorcise the demons from that Sunday last December.

There is something to be said for losing, especially in the fashion the Crew did to close out 2015. The scars left behind will remind players and fans alike that nothing can be taken for granted. Perhaps no better time to remember than when our boys open up the season in Portland, Oregon to face off once again against the team that hoisted the cup in their stead.

Redemption begins March 6.

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