I completed my long and winding road through college in June of 1996, got my first job in Amarillo, TX (my own personal Ohio-to-Texas relocation), and moved out of the place I consider my hometown — Columbus, OH. I wasn’t born there. That distinction goes to Middlesex, NJ. I didn’t grow up in C-bus either. I did that in the nearby towns of Heath and Newark — about half an hour east of Ohio’s capital. Still, I lived in Columbus from the fall of 1985 to the middle of 1996 and grew to love that city, its people and places, and the first big-city vibe I’d ever been part of for any notable length of time.
It hurt to leave Columbus. Oh sure, I was excited about a new job with a minor league hockey team — the Amarillo Rattlers — in a fledgling organization called the Western Professional Hockey League. I hadn’t lived in any state but Ohio since I spent my first five years of existence in New Jersey. It was an exciting time in my life.
The issue was that Columbus had just gotten a major-league level professional sports team. The Columbus Crew began play in 1996, hosting their games at the very stadium where I’d spent so many Saturday afternoons watching college football during my university years. I wanted to go see them. I wanted to own season tickets one day when I started making a real wage. Here was a team in my city at the top level of its sport. After years of attending minor league baseball and hockey games and the odd Arena Football League contest, it was finally time to welcome a Major League Soccer franchise.
But off I went to Amarillo, then to Albany, NY, and on to South Florida in my own progression up from the minors to the big time — a job in the communications department of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. Still, if ever I was in Ohio in the summer, I had to stop at Crew Stadium to catch a game if the team was at home. Sometimes I was alone, and others…well, I had a friend make the two-hour drive down from Cleveland once just to attend a game with me. My first MLS jersey purchase was a gold Crew home kit with the Glidden logo emblazoned across the front. I still have it.
I watched my hometown team from afar for years as best I could. I kept tabs on Brian McBride, Brad Friedel, Brian Maisonneuve, Jeff Cunningham, Stern John, and Robert Warzycha during the early years. I kept tabs on the team as it evolved, winning the U.S. Open Cup over LA Galaxy in 2002. And I kept tabs during leaner times that followed, when the team couldn’t reach the postseason.
I was watching from afar when the Crew finally won MLS Cup in 2008. Guys like Will Hesmer, Frankie Hejduk, Chad Marshall, Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers, Alejandro Moreno, Gino Padula, and Guillermo Barros Schellotto brought my city a championship with a 3-1 win over New York Red Bulls.
Flashing forward a minute, I’d been in Central Florida for seven years when Orlando City SC came to be. I immediately fell in love with the then-USL Lions. A few years later, I started blogging about the team as it made the jump to MLS and became an Eastern Conference rival of the Crew. It was a weird time for me in 2015, as my past and present collided. In the end, I felt more attachment with OCSC, owing mainly to the fact that I had watched the club grow up as part of my community, whereas I’d always followed Columbus from afar, the way you would if there was not a team in your city — something with which I also have some experience. I never forgot my “first love” in MLS, though.
If Crew owner Anthony Precourt goes through with his threatened relocation of the Columbus Crew to Austin, TX, it’ll be a true shame. The Crew is a storied MLS original franchise — or as storied as any team that’s been around for just over two decades can be — and in many ways the club and its fans helped prop up a struggling Major League Soccer during some uncertain early years.
The Crew were one of the league’s model organizations out of the gate, sporting one of the more curious and unique logos in sports. That logo featured three men in hard hats, which was oddly appealing in a largely blue collar Rust Belt state capital. Not everyone loved it, but to me it said, “this is a team that will be industrious and work hard for you,” which, I guess, was the entire point of it.
Just a few years into its existence, the team constructed Crew Stadium (now known as Mapfre Stadium, but I’ll never verbalize it as such), the first of the league’s soccer-specific structures. It stood as a challenge to other teams across the league that were still playing with NFL yard markers on the field.
“Look at this,” the Crew seemed to say. “This is how you become a real major league sport. This is what you need to do to accommodate your fans. Stop being second-class citizens in your own home stadiums.”
Precourt was always an interloper, who was asked in his early days of ownership about whether or not the club would always stay in Columbus or if the purchase agreement included a requirement that the team stay in town. It was a question that made him salty, although looking back with the advantage of hindsight, he protested a bit too much.
There’s nothing I’ve read or seen in the last 24 hours that makes me think Precourt has any desire whatsoever to keep the club in Columbus. He’ll likely hide behind what the city won’t do for him, regardless of how unrealistic his demands are. He blindsided a lot of people with this whole Austin thing, some of whom work for him. At best, Precourt is putting the fans and city through a lot of angst to get a stadium. At worst, he (and they) are gone come 2019. For his part, MLS Commissioner Don Garber seems to be backing the owner more than the city of Columbus on the issue at this point.
In a statement MLS Commissioner Don Garber says the league would allow the Crew to explore leaving CBus for Austin.— DOM TIBERI (@DOMTIBERI) October 17, 2017
As a frequent visitor to Columbus and a resident of Orlando, I have seen the differences in how much of a presence each team has in its own community. In downtown Orlando there are plenty of signs that OCSC is nearby and is a big part of the city’s fabric. In Columbus, you can be a few blocks away from the stadium and have no idea there’s a team in town. Perhaps with a little more effort and marketing support, the revenue and attendance that the club laments could be brought up to the desired level. I’ve personally seen precious little of that effort and support, but admittedly my trips north generally come in the fall during football season.
Being from Ohio, I have seen what losing a favorite sports team does to people. Owing to a quirk of having played as a small boy for a team called the Dolphins for my local YMCA’s football league, I turned into a Miami Dolphins NFL fan at an early age and never fell prey to the Central Ohio Browns-or-Bengals tug of war. Many of my friends became Bengals fans, but even more were Browns fans, and I saw what Art Modell’s theft of their team and relocation to Baltimore did to them.
It’s brutal and profound. Those friends have recovered in many ways with the addition of the “new” Browns but it feels a lot to me like a bunch of people embracing new Coke because (and only because) Coke Classic never came back and never will. But I won’t ever forget how they seemed like people who had a piece of their souls and their identities stolen away when the Browns left.
I don’t want that for the fans of the Columbus Crew. Neither should you.
It doesn’t matter that some of them may have said mean or nasty or condescending things to us on social media before or after our team played theirs. I have sat with these people in their soccer cathedral. I have drank beer in the Nordecke. I have worn a gold jersey and cheered for Adam Moffat, and Steven Lenhart, and Andy Iro, and Duncan Oughton, and yes, even Kei Kamara. Even him. These are, by and large, good people, and today they’re hurting. In 2019 they might be hurting even more — in ways that are too frightening to imagine.
This past Sunday I didn’t care much for the Columbus Crew or their fans when Kaká had his farewell game ruined at Orlando City Stadium. But I remember being among them and I hope like hell Anthony Precourt doesn’t screw them over. You should feel the same, because right now we’re talking about the Crew, but somewhere down the road, we could just as easily be having this conversation about the Lions.
This shouldn’t happen in a single entity league. Don Garber appears to be cool with it happening. We shouldn’t be. At all.