An MLS title is in view for Columbus Crew, a club saved by fan power

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<span>Photograph: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports

Comebacks make for great sporting tales and in winning the Eastern Conference, and progressing to the 2020 MLS Cup final, the Columbus Crew completed a remarkable turnaround. But their comeback wasn’t from a goal or two down. No, the Crew came back from the brink of extinction. Or relocation, at least.

Next season will see Austin FC join Major League Soccer as the competition’s 27th franchise and Columbus fans know the new club’s owner, Anthony Precourt, well. It was Precourt who, in his five years as Crew owner, proposed moving the Ohio club 1,200 miles south to Texas. He saw more commercial potential in Austin than in Columbus, where there has been a league club since 1995.

Crew fans like to boast that they support the first-ever MLS club, due to the fact that Columbus was the first city to sell 10,000 season tickets, a milestone set out as a precursor to launch. There is no doubting Columbus’ place in American soccer folklore, with the city home to MLS’s first ever soccer specific stadium. Columbus was one of the first places to truly embrace the league in its early days.

Fan protest and grassroots organisation kept the Columbus Crew in Columbus. ‘Save The Crew’ wasn’t just a movement that resonated in Ohio. It gained support from across the American soccer community and drew a new ownership group that included the owners of the Cleveland Browns. On 28 December 2018, after various local court verdicts, the Edwards and Haslam families completed their takeover of the Crew and vowed to keep the franchise where it was.

Less than two years later, Caleb Porter’s side are in the MLS Cup final and rather than being the end of something, as would have been the case had Precourt got his way, there is a sense of new beginnings around the Crew. Victory over the Seattle Sounders on Saturday would be the culmination of all that has happened over the last few years, but it would also point the Crew in the direction of a new, glorious age. A preview of further triumphs to come.

It feels fitting the game will be played at Mapfre Stadium given the role it has played in the Crew’s history. It won’t be the last time the Columbus Crew play there, with the move to a new downtown stadium not expected until next summer, but this will likely be the last time the venue plays host to a showcase match having become something of a spiritual home for the American game over the last two decades. ‘Dos a Cero’ will forever be a scoreline synonymous with this venue.

Mapfre Stadium, however, has been left behind by the modern era. Compare the stadium to the likes of LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium and Minnesota United’s Allianz Field and its shortcomings are clear. It is a relic of a bygone age, MLS 1.0, with its bleachers and ‘stadium in a parking lot’ feel. The Crew’s new downtown home, with its fan plazas and executive suites, will carry the club into the future. The move to the new stadium will set the tone for the next generation of soccer in Columbus and put the Precourt days firmly behind the franchise.

MLS Cup glory would also be emblematic of a club moving on. Porter has built a strong team since replacing Gregg Berhalter for the start of the 2019 season. The Crew are a well-constructed, well-coached outfit with the fingerprints of their meticulous head coach clearly visible. Porter’s side haven’t enthralled like Atlanta United and LAFC have in recent seasons, but they deserve to be in the MLS Cup final.

Porter has managed to fold a sense of destiny into his coaching of the Crew. “I look for a story when I take on a job,” he explained after the Eastern Conference final win over the New England Revolution. “I picked this job because I liked the story of the Columbus Crew. The tradition of Columbus Crew being the first club, the tradition of success; and I like the idea of reviving it, reinvigorating it, and obviously bringing a trophy to their fans.”

The role of the fans is so central to the Columbus Crew’s story that it is a great pity only 1,500 of them will be in the stands for the final. Covid-19 has robbed so many fanbases of great moments in 2020 and this could be another such case. For all that Porter and his players will undoubtedly feel the support of the small number of fans at Mapfre Stadium on Sunday, the spectacle will be dulled. Any celebrations will be softened.

Nonetheless, victory over Seattle would be a reward for a group of supporters and a city that refused to accept the disintegration of its team. A soccer club is about much more than just the players on the pitch or the head coach in the dugout. At the core of every club is a community and this has been reinforced by the ‘Save The Crew’ movement and the subsequent recovery of one of America’s most historic teams.

In the long-term, Precourt’s plan to relocate the Crew to Texas could be one of the best things to ever happen to the club. Under his stewardship, this was a franchise lacking direction and purpose. Columbus have never managed to match the average attendance record they set in their expansion season. It took the threat of losing the team to re-engage and re-establish a community connection. Mapfre Stadium will be largely empty on Sunday, but the spirit of the Crew’s fans will be with them for the match and for ever more.