What started as a trip to experience why and who the leadership of Columbus Crew SC would be leaving behind as they continue to work out a deal to move the team to Austin, ended in the most Columbus way possible.
Columbus midfielder and captain Wil Trapp, who spent four seasons in the Crew Academy, grew up and went to school in nearby Gahanna, Ohio, played in college at Akron and has spent his entire career up to this point with the Crew, launched a 35-yard rocket in stoppage time to give Columbus a 3-2 win.
If that goal isn’t at least nominated for MLS Goal of the Year, I’ll riot.
I wasn’t out to see whether or not a stadium would be built at McKalla Place or if the ongoing lawsuit in Columbus would slow down a move.
I didn’t sit in the press box since I’m not going to get anything new from the Columbus players or coaches that hasn’t already been said. And what I did conclude is probably obvious to anyone following this story closely.
The fans in Columbus are passionate and invested in their team. The team has the players and coach that can take it to the next level in the league. The city of Columbus itself, with the right, constant pressure can support the team effectively.
But I’m also confident in saying this can all be recreated in Austin. The many big businesses will probably flock to a fast-growing sport. I’ve met many MLS supporters in Austin, and if they’re anything like the rest of the sports fans in the City I know so well, a stadium at McKalla Place would be full no matter the record or weather.
The biggest difference is time. Columbus has had more than 22 years since its first game to cultivate traditions, chants and everything you could imagine. Austin has had just over nine months.
Columbus fans and those associated with Save The Crew are confident in what they’re trying to accomplish, but they’re not cocky.
Before the game began, I did some tailgate hopping, mingling among the people that have been following the Austin side of things from Ohio since it all began. Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein was one of the many people in attendance.
Once the rain started, we huddled under surrounding tents of the beer trucks in the lot. One fan brought a six pack to pass around as another jumped on top of a nearby car with a flare.
I’ll challenge any MLS fan from Austin to experience what I did before the game and not get a little caught up in the whole movement. But then again, other than some meaningless trolling on social media, Columbus fans don’t dislike Austin fans for being excited and Austinites don’t blame Crew fans for being upset.
I spent the first half of the game near the Nordecke supporters group. Of course, Orlando City scored the first goal just as I was about to get a brat about 15 minutes in and just as half-price night ended.
I watched the next four goals from about 12 rows behind the touchline with my Aunt and Uncle, who have their names etched on their seats and have been season ticket holders since the team played in Ohio Stadium.
Aside from defender Harrison Afful and goalkeeper Zack Steffen rushing toward and tackling Trapp after his wonder strike, one of the most vivid postgame moments was Jonathan Mensah climbing over the rail behind the opposing bench to greet his family in the stands. They shared a quiet moment together amid all the chaos, seemingly unaware of what the future held but also noticeably proud of what the team had accomplished on the night.
Friday before the game I had a meeting downtown in the early afternoon and decided to take a walk across the city. I was met with a live orchestra playing 1812 Overture and a Rib & Jazz Fest, but I also noticed #SaveTheCrew stickers everywhere. On light poles, in windows, on flags and on cars, you could tell most people in the city knew what was going on.
That’s more than I can say for Austin.
Once I got to Land Grant Brewing, the giant semi truck out back painted with a Save The Crew mural is unmistakable. There’s another mural less than a mile away from the stadium painted on the side of a building.
My conclusion is that Columbus deserves to keep the Crew, whether it's in the form of a new franchise down the road or whatever. Everything to make it successful and profitable is there, as long as the MLS and the ownership group can help the fans tap into it correctly.
But I believe Austin is also deserving and has been yearning for an opportunity like this for some time. Nothing I learned or saw on this trip did anything to sway that opinion. Whether or not it should be the team from Columbus is not my decision to make.
One way or another, the bandaid either needs to be ripped off reapplied.
My first night in Ohio, I stayed with my cousin, his wife and two kids. While talking about everything that has transpired, he told me he broke the news to his eight-year-old son just a few weeks earlier.
His son looked at him and asked, “But we can still go to soccer games together, right?”
My cousin didn’t know the answer. And neither do I.
But I do know that for at least one night, a player born and bred in Columbus, gave the entire fanbase a little extra hope.