Save the Crew

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

An impromptu gathering of Columbus Crew SC fans at Hendoc's Pub in the Old North on Tuesday, Oct. 17, was a combination wake, support group and bitch session. Most of the five stages of grief were on display, fueled by shock, disbelief, passion and adult beverages.

Whichever stage one enters upon uttering, “This is bullshit,” is where John Zidar ultimately found himself that night, the day after a news report surfaced that Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt would move the team to Austin, Texas, in 2019 unless a new Downtown stadium was built. Zidar, a Columbus native, a from-day-one Crew fan and the co-founder of Tifosweat, a Crew supporter group that designs and makes many of the banners and other fan paraphernalia that fill Mapfre Stadium on match days, had come to commiserate with fellow fans and to share in the collective misery brought about by the news.

“It was while we were there that we really kind of came to the realization that this is bullshit. Why should we just roll over and take this? This has been our team for 23-some years, all the historical significance. How dare they? Who do they think they are?” Zidar said in an interview at Endeavor Brewing Company in Grandview, where Zidar and some friends had just wrapped up another Aces Radio podcast about the team. “That's where the fire really got lit, that this is the kind of thing you fight for.”

Zidar's Tifosweat co-founder and Aces Radio co-host Morgan Hughes was, of course, also at the Hendoc's assembly when he came to a just-slightly-more-eloquent conclusion.

“Fuck him. Fuck this. Fuck no,” Hughes recalled saying.

“I don't know if anyone can ever answer the question of why [we're so passionate],” Hughes added. “It's hard to describe. It's different with soccer. There's a lot more pain [in an announcement like this] because it's so much more personal.”

Hughes recalled the moment he went from being a fan of the Crew to being a “Crew Fan.”

“I wasn't a soccer guy growing up, but I was a Columbus sports guy, 100 percent,” he said. “I fought getting involved with Crew stuff for a long time. I didn't want to be a part of it, because I knew I'd go all-in. I was at a meeting in 2013 to see if we were going to do a Tifo [banner] project for the U.S. [Men's National Team] vs. Mexico game. Something had to happen, and at that moment, [I thought], ‘I'm kind of aimless right now, maybe I need a thing.'

“It's become my whole life. It's an unhealthy obsession, but I bought into it.”

As has Donny Murray, who's been running Crew supporter group Murderers' Row since 2011.

“Having this team here is part of the identity of the city and it's part of my identity,” Murray said. “I don't want to lose that. That passion is why I'm willing to put so much time into Murderers' Row and why I'm willing to spend so much time now working to save the Crew.”

Ben Hoelzel has run the Crew Union supporters' group since it started as an informal gathering during 2005 tailgates. Things started to get a little more organized in 2008 when the friends made black-and-yellow cowbells to bang on the metal bleachers. They also made miniature cowbells to share with the younger kids in their section “so their parents wouldn't be mad at the terrible racket we were making,” Hoelzel said. The group formally became a 501(c)(7) nonprofit in 2010.

“It becomes part of your identity,” Hoelzel said of being a Crew supporter. “I think a lot of Crew fans will tell you that. Ask anyone … involved with Save the Crew in some way, and they're ‘the Crew guy' in their circles. It lends to a sense of, ‘I'm going to fight like hell to keep that.'”

“It's how I define myself,” Zidar said. “People know me as the Crew guy, so when something you consider a cornerstone of your personality is being threatened, you stand up and go all in to defend and fight for it without a second thought.”

Save the Crew has only been a thing for a little more than a month. A late-night tweet sent bySports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl on Monday, Oct. 16, read, “Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt is set to move team to Austin, Texas, in 2019 if downtown stadium can't happen in Columbus. Story soon.” A Wahl story posted to soon thereafter, providing more details, and an announcement on dated Oct. 17 began, “Precourt Sports Ventures, LLC (PSV), owner of Columbus Crew SC since 2013, announced today that it is exploring strategic options to ensure the long-term viability of the Club, including remaining in Columbus at a new stadium or potentially relocating the Club to the city of Austin, Texas.”

But it's that Monday night tweet that kept many Crew fans up late.

“It was actually leaked to me a couple hours before that,” Zidar said. “It wasn't a for-sure thing, but it was strongly suggested that this would be announced. I was in the hospital with my mom, who'd run the [Columbus Half-Marathon] the day before and was having pain in her legs. [I felt] surprise, shock … tears welled up, [I felt] sick to my stomach. I'm sure the nurses thought I was probably overreacting to my mom's leg pain. It was an all-around bad night.”

Crew fan Evonne Segall had been out at a social function that night and decided to check Twitter when she got home.

“Stupid me, I'm a Twitter addict. I'm always wondering what's going on in the world. One of the first things I saw was that there's a rumor about [the Crew possibly moving],” Segall said. “So then I didn't go to sleep, but stayed up reading everything and talking to people.”

It took only a few days for Save the Crew to go from nonexistent to a full-blown movement, owing in part to the existing organization of the various Crew supporter groups, as well as to the online and social media presence of so many Crew fans. The hashtag #SavetheCrew and became meeting places for fans to unite in righteous rebellion at the news the organization might look to move the team. A rally was held at Columbus City Hall on Sunday, Oct. 22, and Save the Crew banners took over the Saturday, Oct. 28, broadcast of ESPN College GameDay in Columbus for that day's game between Ohio State and Penn State.

A nearly universally disappointing meeting between Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, Columbus Partnership President/CEO Alex Fischer, Precourt and Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber, the outcome of which seemed to be that each side expected the other to arrive with a presentation and plan to address the other's concerns, didn't dampen the movement. Buoyed by the team's ongoing (and a little surprising) participation in the MLS playoffs, Save the Crew targeted the Tuesday, Nov. 21, home match between Crew SC and Toronto FC as its next rallying point.

“We're not really doing anything differently. We're going to prove them wrong by doing what we love, going to games and making banners and supporting our team,” Zidar said prior to the match, which ended in a 0-0 draw. (The series-deciding game was scheduled to take place on Wednesday, Nov. 29, just afterAlive goes to print.)

“I've been a fan since the beginning. My dad would take me to games when they played at Ohio Stadium,” Zidar said. “It became a thing we did, a big part of our family. … We couldn't go to the [2008] MLS Cup game in Los Angeles, but I got my brother and my dad and went to a watch party at Studio 35 in Clintonville. When Frankie [Hejduk] scored the third goal at the end, me and my brother and my dad were in a group hug jumping up and down and screaming.”

“If you're not from here and you don't have a connection to the Buckeyes, you didn't have much connection to the city,” Segall said. “In 1995, there was a big push for the MLS, and my friend Amy and I put down our deposits for a nine-game package right away, sight unseen. Then I met another friend who was a full season ticket holder, and I went to the rest of the games on her extra ticket. I've missed maybe 10 games since 1996.

“Over the years, you develop relationships with the people who sit around you. There's one family where I've watched their two boys grow up and now they're in college. ... It's that kind of community that the Crew brought to my life. Columbus became my home because of the Columbus Crew.”

“I was 12 when the Crew started. I don't remember not having the team,” said Hoelzel, who grew up in Sunbury. “As an adult, most of my best friends have come as a result of being a Crew supporter. I started dating my wife in 2009. She knew from day one that vacations, camping trips, trips to go see family [are based around the Crew]. … The day the Crew schedule comes out, I forward it to her and say, ‘These are the days I'm not available.'”

“My husband [Andy] became a die-hard the more he watched soccer,” Crew fan Julie Stankey said. “I didn't want to go all-in on the Crew, and I figured it would die out when we moved from Columbus to Stark County near Canton, [but] Andy would still go to the games with his best friend, Eric, whenever he came back into town. In 2008, we got a call from Eric asking if we could go to a game, but Andy had to work. Two days later, we got a call that Eric had died [unexpectedly] in his sleep.”

A few months prior to his death, Eric predicted the Crew would win its first MLS Cup that season, according to Stankey, which it did, even clinching the Eastern Conference crown on what would have been Eric's 25th birthday. “That was really meaningful to us,” Stankey said.

“The Crew and soccer is a family thing,” said Donny Murray, who runs Murderers' Row with his brother, Jason. “I've traveled to away games with my parents. The people you meet tailgating and in the stands become your best friends.”

Passionate, engaged fans who've supported the team, in some cases, for its entire existence, who helped create a soccer culture in not just Columbus but throughout MLS, who gave the USMNT an intimidating home field advantage, and who've built meaningful relationships with each other, the team and the city, is the emphasis of the Save the Crew movement.

“You won't meet anyone who loves the city more than the people behind Save the Crew,” Hoelzel said.

“Save the Crew is for the entire community, a movement for everyone,” Zidar said. “Whether you're in the Nordecke for all 17 games or you live in Toledo and watch on TV, your emotional investment is not predicated on your physical presence or how long you've been coming to games. I have no more right or privilege to be upset than someone who just started following in 2017.”

“I have no want or need for Anthony Precourt to live a miserable life, so if he goes, ‘Oops. I messed up. I fucked up. I'm an idiot.' I'd be like, ‘It's cool, man. I've fucked up a lot of shit, too,'” Hughes said. “It's never too late to do the right thing.”