They are Massive

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Being a Crew fan has never been so much fun.

After three seasons of putridity, Columbus is experiencing a soccer renaissance on and off the pitch. The Black and Gold has become the class of Major League Soccer -- a terror for opponents and a delight to fans. And those fans have reciprocated, transforming Crew Stadium into a stronghold of support matched by few venues in MLS and bettered by none.

Once scattered throughout the stadium, the most boisterous supporters have combined in the stadium's northeast corner, unofficially known as the Nordecke. Their contagious chants, steady drumbeat and all-purpose noisemaking have converted a once-mild fan base into an electric athletic communion.

What began as a self-deprecating joke from an internet message board has become an earnest badge of pride that could apply to the fans as much as the club they support: "We are massive!"

The Nordecke faithful has had plenty of reason to cheer. The Crew (16-6-5) clinched a playoff spot two weeks before any other MLS club and has since secured home-field advantage for the postseason. They started out 6-1 and are currently riding an eight-match unbeaten streak.

They're the deepest, most fundamentally sound, most entertaining squad in the league. And thanks to all this success, they finally have the sort of swagger dynasties are made of.

Few people believed in them a year ago, when Columbus failed to qualify for the playoffs for the third straight season. Yet Sigi Schmid, the longtime UCLA coach who won an MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy before taking over the Crew in 2006, kept the faith.

Injuries torpedoed Schmid's first season as Crew coach. Despite improvements, Columbus missed the postseason again in the coach's second campaign.

By that point, the few fans that remained in the rowdy supporters' clubs were booing -- some even wore bags over their heads in protest -- but management remained patient with its coach, and he remained committed to the roster he had assembled.

"I think that teams panic and think that you've got to remake it every year Then you're constantly going to be rebuilding," Schmid said. "You've got to believe in the decisions that you make and stick with them and give them a second to grow."

The Crew's patience yielded a team in full bloom. All of Major League Soccer's most successful franchises, from DC United in the '90s to Schmid's Galaxy teams to recent titans Houston and New England, were built on a consistent core of players. Now that Schmid's players have had time to gel, Columbus has risen to prominence in the same way.

This year's Crew exemplifies the all-for-one, one-for-all approach that championship teams thrive on. They succeed with staunch team defense, savvy passing and big-game heroics from what seems to be a different star every week.

When key players get injured, suspended or called up to their national teams, Schmid turns to his bench and the club doesn't miss a beat. Even the recent three-game absence of offensive maestro Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a leading candidate for league MVP honors, didn't slow down the Crew.

"You need players to be ready to step in and do a job. We've had that," said forward Alejandro Moreno, who leads the Crew with nine goals. "You go back to even [midfielder] Adam Moffat. He was doing very well for us at the beginning of the year. He gets hurt, and now questions are being asked as to who is going to take over that place; what's going to happen? And Brad Evans has stepped in and done a job. And so on and so forth."

Given the past three seasons of despair, it's remarkable how stacked Columbus seems now. Schmid and General Manager Mark McCullers assembled the team slowly and patiently. They started by cleaning house; only U.S. World Cup veteran defender Frankie Hejduk, longtime utility midfielder Duncan Oughton and rising defensive star Chad Marshall remain from former coach Greg Andrulis' regime.

From there they picked up players through smart trades, solid drafting and fortunate international acquisitions like Schelotto and defensive stalwart Gino Padula. They lucked into midfielder Robbie Rogers, a breakout star with World Cup-level potential, in a weighted lottery. And as this season progressed, they snagged even more firepower in the form of young playmaker Emmanuel Ekpo and MLS veteran Pat Noonan.

This cast of characters has amassed wins in every which way, from a 4-0 home domination of closest competitor New England to gutsy road triumphs in traditional danger zones like DC and Colorado.

Victories of any sort are a change from recent seasons, but nothing exemplifies the difference in this year's team like its penchant for comebacks: The Crew is 4-6-4 when giving up the first goal. Upon falling behind, previous Crew squads would hang their heads and give up. These days an equalizer seems like a foregone conclusion.

"It seemed like we found ways to lose games, whereas this year we're finding ways to get results," Moreno said.

The Nordecke difference

Mirroring the team's success on the field has been the resurgence of a lively fan culture. If confidence and consistency have been twin pillars of the Crew's storybook season, the players are quick to recognize what a shot in the arm the Nordecke has been. Traditional European-style supporters clubs have backed the Crew since MLS launched 13 years ago, but never with this much vigor, volume and size.

"Being a Crew fan this year has been the best ever," said Mark Casperson of Hudson Street Hooligans. "The closest thing you'll get in Major League Soccer to going to a European game is going to a Columbus Crew game, by far."

As last season concluded, three primary supporters' groups - the old-school devotees Crew Union, the young ruffians known as Hudson Street Hooligans and the rhythmically inclined Hispanic group La Turbina Amarilla - were spread out across Crew Stadium.

Fans cried foul when the Crew brass decided to install a permanent stage behind the goal in the stadium's north end, a traditional supporters' hub. But management took the opportunity to nudge the factions together in the northeast corner.

The gamble paid off big time. When Toronto FC brought thousands of rowdy fans to Columbus for the season opener, Crew supporters in the Nordecke banded together to shout the visitors down. When the Crew suffered its worst attendance ever in the following game, the Nordecke stood strong.

Momentum has continued to build since then, culminating with a raucous display at last weekend's sellout showdown with David Beckham and the Galaxy. Thousands of black-clad Columbus fans crammed into the corner to bounce and sing and drum the Crew to a 1-0 victory.

"You go back and you hear the rumblings of them building the stage in the off-season. Everybody thought it was a huge disaster," Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer said.

"But at the same time it was a blessing to us. It brought all the fans together into one area, and I think that's how it should be. I don't think there should be any divisions in our fan base. Everybody's out there with one goal in mind, and that's to cheer us on and support us. And that really as been a huge part of our success."

The Crew players and staff have made no secret of their appreciation for the nonstop barrage of support. The team bows to the Nordecke after every home contest and rushes to celebrate in the corner after goals.

In turn, the fans feed off this appreciation and convert the good vibes into more and more fervent support. It's a symbiotic relationship the likes of which has rarely been seen in MLS.

"We're pushing for them, they're pulling for us," said Brandon Ingram of Hudson Street Hooligans. "So every time we're out there working for each other."

Hejduk in particular has embraced his team's most rambunctious fans. When a red card suspension kept him off the pitch for the Galaxy game, the Crew captain hit up the pre-game tailgate parties and stood with the rowdies in the Nordecke. That love for the supporters directly fuels his passion to perform in a Crew uniform.

"There's no doubt that the more people there are in the stands, the more psyched for the game you are," Hejduk said. "And when I look over before the game and I see all those fans over there jumping up and down with flags and yelling and screaming, I mean, I'm just pumped up."

With the postseason looming, Hejduk and his teammates are hoping to stay pumped up through Nov. 23, the date of this year's MLS Cup final.

As one of the few players still around from the last time the Crew made the playoffs in 2004, he remembers how Columbus finished the season on a 17-match unbeaten streak, only to suffer a first-round knockout by New England in what might be the league's all-time worst playoff choke. That series knocked the wind out of this club for a long time, but the Crew finally seems to have its mojo back.

"Once we got off to that start, it made us think, 'Wow, we are a good team. We can do good this year. We can make the playoffs.' It's just been having that confidence of believing in each other," Hejduk said.

"I keep on saying 'believing,' but that's just what we've done this year."