Crew Relocation: Thoughts From a Cleveland Perspective

MLS Columbus Crew fans
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Soccer isn’t something we cover a ton around here at WFNY. I tried to start more soccer coverage a few years ago on the heels of an MLS Cup appearance, and the Columbus Crew SC delivered not only a terrible season, but one that was boring as well. This year’s team played much better soccer, and delivered a great run at the end of a season which included a playoff run that had them one slight deflection away from hosting another MLS Cup.

In the midst of all of this was the shocking news of Anthony Precourt, the Crew’s owner since 2013, planning to move the team to Austin Texas in 2019. Without stating it directly, the players on the team rallied around this news and shared how important the city and fans of Columbus were to them. They did everything short of using the hashtag #SaveTheCrew.

Now the dust has settled and the offseason is here. Fans are left to ponder the future. There is a huge grassroots movement to “Save The Crew” which has gained support from Columbus businesses. There are those who are trying to put a deal into place that would keep the team in Columbus. For many fans, however, Precourt continuing to own the team after his actions in this matter would be unacceptable as well. There are fans who no longer want to give a cent to Mr. Precourt. The relationship is irreparable.

Picture the scenario in Cleveland if at the end of the 1995 season, the city leaders of Cleveland secured a new stadium for Art Modell. Yes you get to keep your team, but you sold your soul to the devil who tried to steal it. Others believe that signing up for 2018 season tickets is a way to prove your loyalty and support and give an alternative to the idea that Columbus isn’t a viable sports town. Some fans say that if the Crew leave Columbus there will be no reason to watch the MLS at all. If I don’t have a local rooting interest, why not watch better quality soccer like the English Premier League or the Bundesliga?

In Cleveland, when the Browns left, many turned to college football. I remember shutting the NFL out all together during those years. If Columbus leaves for Austin, it is very likely that Cincinnati will be given a franchise, but sports fans wont simply gravitate to the nearest team if theirs is stolen, and the Columbus-Cincinnati rivalry has already been established after a U.S. Open Cup match this past year.

If the season’s end just meant the Crew were gone, then it would almost be easier to deal with. When Modell stole the Browns from Cleveland, he did so with comparative immediacy. Imagine if the announcement had come that the Browns were leaving after the 1996 season. We all have seen pictures of people ripping seats out of the stadium after the last game. Imagine trying to police Cleveland Stadium for another eight games with this cloud hanging over the heads of the fans and the city.

There is a long offseason ahead with many questions still to be answered. Will Precourt continue to spend on the team? The core of the team is signed and ready to stay together for a few years, but with financial futures in doubt will he spend more of his own money to improve the team? And for whom? Will the people of Austin be happy with a team where they wont care about the quality of soccer being played?

Another component of the offseason and impending season of doubt will be the constant news and rumors across the two competing cities. Austin city council unanimously passed a resolution to help find a permanent soccer stadium home in the city. On Tuesday night, Andrew Erickson of the Columbus Dispatch reported a #MLS2ATX event at Eberly’s restaurant in Austin.

The location adds some irony into the mix especially as it allowed more people to realize the Austin-based efforts for a MLS team call themselves Eberly’s Army. You see, Eberly’s Texas historical importance is preserving something in the city it belongs rather than allowing those in power to move it elsewhere.

In December 1842 Thomas I. Smith and Eli Chandler were ordered to return the public documents from Austin to Washington-on-the-Brazos. Mrs. Eberly, realizing that the symbols of federal government were being removed from the city, fired a six-pound gun that city officials kept loaded with grapeshot in case of Indian attack. Austinites, aroused by the cannon, became involved in what is known as the Archives War. Ultimately, the archives were returned to Austin permanently.

I have a unique, personal relationship with The Crew. I’ve always been a soccer fan, and because Columbus was the closest MLS team to me, it became my team. Many fans said “Columbus ‘Till I Die” but I was more of “Columbus ‘Till I Die, or Cleveland Gets a Team.” I had a tangential interest until a few years ago when I met some new friends who were much more into it than I was. I started to follow more closely. As FC Cincinnati grew in popularity, I resigned myself to the fact that Cleveland would never get a team. I’ve grown to really love the players. They are a unique group, much like the Indians, in that when they were brought together, there were no real star players. Then young players started to emerge became bigger stars. One of the best signs I saw during this playoff run was “They Don’t Want Us Here” featuring the MLS logo. The Crew is a team from a small market, with an old stadium, and no star power, but here they were knocking off Atlanta with its glimmering stadium, 70,000 person sell-outs; NYCFC who plays in Yankee stadium, with David Villa and iconic light blue uniforms; and in what would have been the ultimate the potential to knock off Toronto, who has Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, arguably two of the three most popular players in the United States.

From a Cleveland sports standpoint, The Crew leaving Columbus would increase the chances of Cleveland one day getting a team. That may be pie in the sky, but odds would definitely be more favorable with no team two hours away. But even if Cleveland were given a team, I still cannot root for the departure of The Crew. The Crew was the first team in the MLS. Lamar Hunt took a huge gamble in the early days and without The Crew, there would be no Atlanta FC, NYFC, Toronto FC. You can’t use Columbus as a bridge and then torch it once you’ve crossed it, yet here we sit.

There is at least one more season of soccer to be played in Columbus. Every soccer fan in America should be rooting that there is a way that The Crew can be saved.