In the early years of Major League Soccer, the Columbus Crew fought and clawed their way to the precipice of the MLS Cup year after year, only to fall just short every time. The leader of those teams was a talented, charismatic young forward named Brian McBride.
It's been a while, but Columbus is again one win away from the championship match. Standing in the Crew's way? Brian McBride.
Tonight Columbus will host its most hated rival, the Chicago Fire, in the Eastern Conference championship game. In a bittersweet twist for fans, McBride, a Crew legend and World Cup hero, will be wearing red rather than gold.
The former face of the Crew took his oft-injured cheekbones to England in 2003 to play for Fulham of the Premier League. Columbus tried to lure him back for the 2007 season with a million-dollar contract, but when Fulham matched the offer, McBride opted to stay abroad another year.
This season, McBride returned to the U.S., but rather than coming back to the Crew, he chose to play in Chicago. He and his wife grew up there, and they bought a house there to serve as their Stateside home during their stay in England.
Despite his ties to the Windy City, Columbus fans were understandably upset to see their hero suiting up for their archrivals. If the sight of McBride in a Fire uniform stung, his two goals against the Crew in a late-season encounter was a knife twisting in the wound.
Tonight's match marks McBride's first return to Crew Stadium with the Fire. Fans are in a precarious position. Should they cheer McBride for his years of service to Columbus? Boo him for defecting? Strike some bizarre balance between the two?
Longtime Crew midfielder Duncan Oughton, one of two players left over from McBride's tenure here, chimed in after the 2-0 victory over Kansas City last weekend that advanced Columbus to the brink.
"I mean, obviously it's a big playoff game, so hopefully they'll give him a bit of a razzing, but I think he'll get a pretty positive response. He was well-liked here, and deservedly so," Oughton said. "But then, once the game starts, hopefully they'll roll over all those guys in red."
Defender Frankie Hejduk is the other player remaining from the McBride era. His response to McBride's impending return was less empathetic.
"To tell you the truth, I could care less," Hejduk said.
Many longtime Crew fans don't feel like indifference is an option. Tonight their team faces its fiercest rival in the biggest match in club history, and their former hero will be wearing enemy colors. Here's hoping Columbus comes down on the side of jeering McJudas with venomous vigor.
What: Eastern Conference Championship: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13
Where: Crew Stadium, North Side