Crew View: Potential relocation sold as business, but it's personal

Chris DeVille
Anthony Precourt

I can't pretend to be an impartial observer in this Columbus Crew crisis, so let's begin with some personal history — because what team owner Anthony Precourt, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber and every MLS owner with veto power should understand is that for the Columbus faithful, threatening to move the Crew constitutes a personal affront.

I attended my first Crew game on April 20, 1996, with my mom, dad and younger sister. I was 12. The previous week we had skipped the team's inaugural match, a 4-0 win over DC United, because my parents didn't want to deal with the traffic — a decision I needle them about to this day, considering that the Crew has become enmeshed in our family's fabric.

Instead we checked out the second game. From the north end of Ohio Stadium, we beheld a 2-1 loss to the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny. It didn't matter; we kept coming back.

The following year, my parents bought season tickets. Two decades later, they remain season-ticket holders. At their house, my childhood bedroom wall remains covered with newspaper clippings about '90s Crew games. In their living room sits a framed photo of my dad holding my first born daughter in the Mapfre Stadium stands in 2015. We named our first family dog after Brian McBride.

There are many more like us throughout Columbus, for whom the Crew provides a generational through line. Others have fallen in love with the club for other reasons, in other contexts. We love the Crew all the same.

This week we should be talking about the playoffs, which kick off Thursday, Oct. 26, in Atlanta, and about the 10-match unbeaten streak that ended the regular season. We should be geeking out about Justin Meram's breakthrough season or Federico Higuain's contract extension or Zack Steffen stopping a David Villa PK last Sunday. Instead we are fearful for the end of our club and tradition. What should have been the occasion for a postseason pep rally instead called for a #SaveTheCrew protest on the steps of City Hall.

News broke last week that Precourt, who purchased the Crew in 2013 with a promise not to relocate, was planning to move it to Austin in 2019 (and likely had been all along) unless he could secure a new Downtown stadium. Some people recycled an old refrain: MLS is hardly a world-class league, they argued, so losing the Crew is no big deal. Why not follow elite European soccer instead?

These people are missing the point. I've watched boring Crew games and electrifying Crew games, but I've never watched because I thought MLS offered the world's finest soccer. I watched because they were my hometown team, a team I grew up watching with my family, a team I formed a bond with.

Precourt appears eager to sever that bond for tens of thousands of people, pursuing a grass-is-greener fantasy in a strikingly similar city that seems largely ambivalent about pro soccer. Unfortunately, he has reason to shake up the status quo; hard facts and subjective experience reveal much of Columbus has been ambivalent, too. Change is needed, and maybe a new stadium should be part of that change.

I just don't understand why Precourt would move the team to a questionable situation behind closed doors without making a good-faith effort to build on the passionate core here. Or why Garber would heartily approve of flushing two-plus decades of MLS brand awareness down the drain.

If Garber thinks Crew fans will keep following MLS after their club moves, he's exhibiting some of that American soccer hubris we've been reading so much since the World Cup qualification debacle. (Remember the good old days when that was all Columbus soccer fans had to worry about?)

What reason would Crew diehards have to stay invested in a second-rate league that allowed our club to abandon us? We might as well redirect our time, money, and emotion to one of those topflight foreign leagues, or even find a hobby that isn't predicated on the whims of wealthy carpetbaggers — ideally one for which family, community and loyalty are more than just a marketing campaign.