SCrewed, Part Deux

Is this the final pitch for the MLS in Columbus? F*ck, it feels like it.

Crew fans: We need to talk.

I have many questions, and it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror.

The team we love is almost gone.

The chants and tifos and the movie and the yard signs and the bumper stickers and the jerseys are not enough.

Can we fix this? Is it even broken?

Steve Clark losing that ball in the 2015 MLS championship game against Portland is nearly a perfect metaphor for the complacency that Columbus as a city has fallen into having the marquee MLS team. We can’t just lackadaisically assume the team will be here when we want it to be. The world is unfair. If you have something valuable, other people want to take what you have.

It also works reciprocally—Crew fans want to take what Anthony Precourt has.

Here’s where it’s time for a hard look: Do we even deserve to have his team?

Last month’s homeowner was a landmark occasion: the last of its kind before the team moves to Austin, and the stands weren’t exactly full. If we can’t pack a pivotal season opener on a cool sunny day in March, what will happen midseason against a team at the bottom of the table? Heck, what will happen when we play the 2018 championship game in an away stadium? Can our fans even hope to compare to the all-out onslaught that Portland fans brought to Crew Stadium for the 2015 MLS Final? The Timbers Army were singing loudly and together before any team took the field. Crew fans, on the other hand, had the wind sucked out of them 27 seconds after the opening whistle.

The atmosphere for the home opener was much like in year’s past. Plenty of chanting, plenty of joy—way more celebration than funeral. As the announcer introduced the Crew starting 11, the crowd shouted back each player’s last name in unison—the main difference this year being the addition of Gyasi Zardez. The man had proved his worth as a vicious finisher in the first away season opener. He’s hungry for goals and he has plenty of playmakers behind him feeding him golden passes. Makes me wish we’d have had him for the past four years. Soon enough, the Crew was on the scoreboard with a penalty efficiently slotted into the corner by our Federico Higuain. I spoke with a long time usher, Richard Irwin Jr., who covers the section my mother has had season tickets in since the inaugural season in the stadium. He echoed the sentiment of almost every fan I interviewed: I just want the team to stay!

The night before the Mapfre’s first game of 2018, there was a different opener on deck—the premiere of Sean Kelly’s locally produced Save The Crew: The Battle for Columbus. A documentary built over the past year, it also took a hard look at the realities the Columbus Crew SC franchise face on the whole.

Columbus is going to lose a national landmark, as Crew Stadium (now named Mapfre Stadium) was the first soccer specific stadium in the United States of America and the first MLS stadium built. The Crew was also the first Major League Soccer team and essentially introduced the league to the country.

The film drew heavy comparisons between Austin and Columbus as cities, one of which, ironically, that the proposed Austin stadium site is a former toxic waste site and current brownfield. (Columbus Crew Stadium is built in the formerly toxic, cleaned up ruins of the Columbus Auto Parts factory). The similarities between Austin and Columbus are too numerous to mention—hell, even Austin soccer fans will have to compete with a university that rivals The Ohio State University in size and population. If there was one city that a team like The Columbus Crew would work in, Austin is a perfect analog to the capital city.

While well done, the film was pretty heartbreaking and only barely had any answers for fans as to what action to take to stop the team from moving.

Was the move a fix from the start? Never had there ever been problems getting thousands of fans in the door before any other sold out game, especially USMNT games, but for some reason the lines took upwards of a half hour to move 10 feet. Official attendance should have been capacity plus, but official attendance is taken at kick-off. Thousands of fans missed the kick off because of the abnormally slow lines. Could Precourt have been planning this move, ala Major League, since before the 2015 MLS Cup run?

During the Q & A session after the film, former starts and MLS Champions Gino Padula, Andy Iro, Alejandro Moreno, and Steven Lenhart shared their thoughts on how to save this team. Padula got emotional, sharing his wistful memories and hopes for the future of the youth program. Former star Guillermo Schelotto sent a message pledging his support and encouraging the fans to keep fighting. Former star striker Lenhart pled with the crowd to be positive and use their creativity to change the minds of the people with the money.

Like any pro athlete, Lenhart is all about not giving up. I caught up with him after the second half started. During a corner kick set play, Zardez had knocked in a failed clearance to take the Crew up 2 – 0. He reiterated his impassioned plea from the night before.

“If you channel the passion to creativity, figuring out how to connect with the people who make the big decisions and showing that you support them, I think they’ll have a reason to stay,” he said.

The bottom line, is always, cash. The Crew is a professional team and money makes a professional team viable. At this point, Montreal had scored once and then again to even up the score. Would we even win our opener? Most of the fans that hadn’t left to beat the traffic were on their feet alternating between chants of Columbus!  and Save The Crew!

But how?

Columbus Crew roots run deep, and stretch far beyond Mapfre and its parking lot.

Until the MLS came along, future prospects for youth soccer players in Ohio were few and far between. Club teams in the Ohio South Youth Soccer Association were plentiful but making a marquee team like the NCAA Blast or Club Ohio was impossibly exclusive. By the time high school rolled around, only a few teams, like St. Charles, attracted scouts from college. Even with a college scholarship, the offers were paltry book discounts and room and board vouchers. Beyond college, there was nothing. Playing in Europe was impossible, playing in South America was even harder, and making the Olympic Development squad only offered the prospect of being called up to train for a team mired in politics and nepotism. Don’t even get me started on prospects for women’s soccer.

Then the MLS happened. Well-funded youth programs started cropping up all over the country. Now, the captain of The Crew is from Gahanna, Ohio, just getting a call-up for a USMNT friendly right after this reporting. Now, what will become of our youth programs?

This is what was racing through my mind as the first game of 2018 (and last-ever opener) was potentially drawing to a 2-2 close.

A 17-year-old named Joe sighed despondently next to me, his metaphorical shrug representing the emotional personality of 2018’s Crew season. A Crew fan from birth, born to season ticket holders, he supports Chelsea FC from London—a club you can count on at this point more than your hometown heroes. He hasn’t resigned to the fact that the team is leaving and holds hope that the powers that be won’t let it happen. You’ll always have your English team to root for, I tell him as we gathered to exit the stadium. Two minutes into stoppage time, Argudo was fouled in the box. Zardez stepped up to take the penalty kick and tidily blasted it past the Montreal goalkeeper. We’d won!

Walking out of the stadium felt like a real goodbye. The hulking, concrete and aluminum structure with bright yellow fixtures may be soon to rot, empty, without the weekly joy of the first MLS team imbuing it with a sense of purpose, community, and national recognition. A group of middle school aged girls walked past me shouting Nordecke chants into a bullhorn. A white-haired older fella in yellow and black fatigues swished his Crew flag cape past me, shouting Columbus! to the exiting fans.

I felt wistful and found my mother, who had been at the first-ever Columbus Crew game. On her way out, she told me, emphatically: “SAVE THE CREW!”

Here’s to hoping.