The Columbus crew is not supposed to be here at the moment.
Not “here” as in the Major League Soccer championship game, the MLS Cup, against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday night – although this is unlikely enough for some fans.
But here in Ohio they said. The team is at home. Your home.
Their journey to Saturday’s finals begins in October 2017 when the crew’s fans received disgusting news that the owner of their beloved team – an MLS original that started playing in town in 1996 – wanted to fish for with support from the league office to uproot the entire operation and move it to Austin, Texas.
It was a devastating reveal precisely because crew fans knew how these things often go: rich owners, almighty leagues – in American sport they tend to prevail. In Ohio they knew that all too well. Just look at what happened to the Cleveland Browns, they said.
But the self-pity only lasted a moment. Then came anger and determination and soon organization. Keeping your team in Columbus, despite the wishes of the rich and powerful forces, felt like a long shot. But they would try.
Their energies merged behind a simple slogan – Save The Crew – but the campaign was more than just a hashtag. Behind the scenes, a group of nearly two dozen long-time fans gathered to form a leadership team that had the energy and long hours of a vibrant start-up.
The group consisted of graphic designers, public relations specialists, lawyers, and anyone else with a point of view to work in. Your message traveled far. Fans of opposing teams expressed their condolences. Some even flew the crew colors in solidarity. If it can happen to them, other fans said, it can happen to us.
Over time, Ohio officials and community leaders picked it up and used every leverage they could find. Twelve thousand fans signed a pledge to buy tickets if the team stayed in the area. The pressure on the owner behind the move, Anthony Precourt, and the league increased. Slowly the tide began to turn.
In October 2018, the parties began drafting a contract to transfer ownership of the crew to an investment group that included Jimmy and Dee Haslam, the owners of the Browns, and Pete Edwards, the crew’s longtime team doctor. The new owners promised to keep the club in Columbus, an announcement that sparked a volcanic explosion of joy and relief that in some ways has not yet materialized.
The battle to save the crew, which is still on everyone’s lips, has made the team’s unlikely promotion to the championship game all the sweeter this season.
The goal is of course to win the match.
But in a sense, perhaps more so than the average sports fan, they are all just happy to be here. In Columbus. Still at home.
DAVID MILLER, 31, joined the Save The Crew leadership group helping with communication.
I was mad. I did not sleep well. And the next day I was still angry. The following week I saw that this movement had started, a website, a Twitter handle. I’ve been following media clips. My wife kept telling me that if you keep getting angry, you need to do something about it.
People who had skills kept showing up. We needed a lawyer and a lawyer showed up. We needed someone to get records, and someone came out of the blue who was good at it. It is amazing that all of these volunteers came out of the woods and were interested and prepared for the fight against the machine.
“Save the Crew” was seen in Columbus as a battle between good and bad. It’s a motivating story for many people of how the fans and the community came together to fight the millionaires and billionaires.
KAREN CROGNALE, 55, is a longtime fan of the Crew, former club employee, and mother of a former Columbus player.
This is a closer community compared to the state of Ohio. You could meet crew players in the supermarket in the mall. They were accessible. And it still feels that way.
When we found out that the team would be saved, I was alone. I sat on my bed and sobbed. About a sports team! It seems insane. But that was the emotional toll we took all year.
Fans can remember Frankie Hejduk’s header for a goal in 2008. I can’t remember moments. It was never about the team or how well they did or whether we made the playoffs. For me it was where my kids grew up, where we raised our family, the friends we made in the stadium, the parking lot. It wasn’t about football. It was about everything off the field. And if the team leaves, we lose that.
FRANKIE HEJDUK, 46, a beloved former player who still worked for the team, had to walk a fine line during the Save the Crew campaign.
I like to focus on the positives, but it was tough. I couldn’t say much about it. I was employed by the club. So I had to do what I had to do. But I think the fans know how I felt. I think they felt for me whether they knew it or not. And if not, I would have a beer with them after the game and tell them. But I couldn’t say much openly.
When they saved the team, it was probably the seventh best moment of my life. I have four children and a wife. So these are the top 5. The sixth wins the MLS Cup 2008 with the crew. I played with the national team. I went to the Olympics. I’ve won other MLS cups. But that could have been # 7.
JOHN ZIDAR, 33, used his design skills to help brand the Save The Crew movement.
We’d get my dad season tickets for his birthday slash Christmas, and he’d take turns taking me or my brother or sister with him. I’ve met most of my closest friends through the team. I still go with my brother now. It permeates every part of my life.
During “Save The Crew” my father died and he didn’t see that we saved her. So it’s nice to have her here now, like I still have a piece of him to enjoy. It means the world to me, possibly in ways that I can’t necessarily put into words.
RANDI LEPPLA, 36, has had crew season tickets since 2009.
We saw parades the whole time. It’s based on money. You have to take that into account. But nowhere else in the world does football work like this. Teams have an identity and their identity is the community.
Save The Crew jerseys, billboards, stickers, bumper stickers – they have been everywhere. Local businesses set things up in their stores. It was a very quick turn from “oh no, this is so sad” to “what are we going to do to fight this?”
We shouldn’t have a team this year, and here we are. Winning would be a fairytale ending for us. If you will, it would be a great way to end a two year winning round.
DEE HASLAM, 66, was a newbie to football when she and her husband, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, bought the team.
We’re really looking forward to Columbus and our fans, who have almost lost a team. Cleveland lost a team. We obviously got this story much later, but you still hear the stories. It was a devastating thing. When we heard from the Columbus crew that they could leave Ohio, all we said was, “This can’t happen. That’s awful for a community. “
Standing in the field for the conference championship [last weekend]Oh my god we really are here. We are in the final. It’s the MLS Cup. We really haven’t slept. When you lose there is a lot of tension and a lot of stress. If you win and you expect to win, the stress is worse.