The Crew’s home finale ended on a twisted note Saturday night, when the most frustrating team in MLS suddenly reversed form. Derrick Etienne Jr. potted two late goals, the second one in stoppage time, and the Crew beat the New York Red Bulls 2-1 in Lower.com Field. It was unexpected. It was stunning.
Is it too little, too late, at the end of a regular season when a great mass of their most strident fans has been frustrated by the performance of the team and the perception of wealthy, entitled and indifferent owners?
When this year’s MLS yearbook comes out, the Crew will have the superlative “Most likely to blow a lead.” Yet, here in their last home game of the year, they managed to keep their playoff hopes alive by stunning the Red Bulls, one of the best road teams in the league. A standing-room crowd of 20,000-plus erupted.
Dappling the Nordecke were fans wearing neckties. The ties were layered with symbolism. They conjured the fact that the Crew leads the league in draws (ties, eh?) with 15; many of these ties (six) came with blown leads in the second half and/or in second-half stoppage time (four). It’s not much of a stretch, then, to say the fan’s neckties represented tight collars (gag).
But there's another drama running in the background.
At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, the MLS fans who fill supporters’ sections are a creative, forward-thinking bunch. They tend to be well-organized and active in their relationships with front offices.
Crew fans – who organized to fight for the very survival of their franchise, and won – might have the fullest grasp of the fan culture’s sine qua non, its essential nature. They will be heard.
They chafed when the Crew’s majority owners, Dee and Jimmy Haslam, decided to give an alleged serial sexual assaulter, Deshaun Watson, a gigantic contract to play quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. At one game in April, they held up 22 signs (“We’re with her”) in the Nordecke, to represent the 22 lawsuits that were lodged against Watson at the time.
At a game in Chicago in July, after Roe v Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, one fan was cleared to carry a protest sign (“We dissent”) into the visitors' section. The sign was OK'd by Chicago before it was nixed by Crew management.
Earlier this month, Crew fans protested when the team’s majority owners, the Haslams, and minority owner Pete Edwards, hosted a major local fundraiser for Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance.
Hardened Save the Crew veterans take it for granted that politics are intertwined with sports. (See: the Modell law, one of the political tools used by a grassroots movement to prevent the team’s move to Austin). These activist fans may not like the Haslams' and Edward’s politics, but that does not necessarily stop them from paying for season tickets, merchandise, concessions, etc. What rankles them is being told that sports and politics don’t mix – and then seeing the owners funnel money to a Trump-backed venture capitalist and sometimes election denier. Their money, in part.
The Crew’s stunning, come-from-behind victory Saturday turned down the heat on a fan base that was simmering, and ready to boil. The pent up pressure had more to do with the fortunes of a team that had dropped 20 points from winning positions, a testament to its underperformance this season. This Crew team is too good to be fighting for their playoff lives, but so it goes.
The Crew has two more games remaining, Wednesday night at Charlotte and Sunday (Decision Day) at Orlando. They are in eighth place, just below the playoff bar in the Eastern Conference. They are equal in points (45) with sixth-place Orlando and seventh-place Miami, but they have three fewer victories – which means they don’t own the first tiebreaker, so they need help.
Foremost, the Crew need to win out. That would be something considering they haven’t won two games in a row all season.
And if they don't do it now, the other issues may come to the fore.
My next-door neighbor is a 40-year-old soccer freak who still plays the game. He’s also a longtime Crew supporter. Sunday, before he mowed his lawn and I vacuumed my car, he paused for a chat.
Mostly, he talked about how difficult it has been to watch the Crew, winners of seven of 17 home games, continually go into late-game meltdown mode. He is questioning whether he will renew his season tickets. The tiebreaker might be the Haslams’ J.D. Vance fundraiser – my next-door neighbor was abhorred by it.
“Why should I give those people my money?” he said.
There are corporate public-relations machines that will provide chapter and verse about the charitable causes supported by Crew owners. But that is not the point. It is this: There are hundreds, probably thousands, of Crew fans who feel exactly like my next-door neighbor.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Crew need to make playoffs to smooth relationship with fans