Crew Complete Course Change From Relocation to Unlikely Rejuvenation
What a difference 15 months can make.
In October of 2017, the Columbus Crew's future was pointing south, both literally and figuratively. The word trickled out that owner Anthony Precourt was looking to move the club–an MLS original–to Austin, Texas, with the finances and business metrics apparently not adding up in Ohio. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the club, Gregg Berhalter steered it to two playoff appearances, but it became apparent midway through the last MLS season that he'd be moving on, too, taking on the bigger challenge of guiding the U.S. men's national team.
Fast forward to January 2019 and out are Precourt, Berhalter, the SC mandate and a dead end at Mapfre Stadium. In are committed, local owners in the Haslam and Edwards families, who have secured the pathway to a new, downtown stadium; a proven, MLS Cup-winning team president in Tim Bezbatchenko; and a proven, MLS Cup-winning coach in Caleb Porter. Through it all, the team's identity that was crafted long ago persevered, and what looked like a gut punch to Columbus now has the makings of a project fast-tracked to thrive. The acquisition of the club and the new front office and technical staff hires were celebrated at an event Wednesday in Columbus that acted as an emphatic of a "mission accomplished" statement. And mission accomplished, it most certainly was.
The Crew's near downfall came under a sterile, business-first mindset. While the passion for the club among its supporters and the city's "Save the Crew" movement was universally lauded, the team's faulty metrics were left to blame for what nearly became a relocation that few outside of the Precourt Sports Ventures boardroom and Austin wanted to see happen.
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That recent aura was made even more stark with under the umbrella of the themes of Wednesday's event: Family, pride and the true sense of the club belonging to the city. That was made quite clear in comments made by MLS commissioner Don Garber, Dee Haslam, Pete Edwards, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, Columbus Partnership president Alex Fischer, Porter and Bezbatchenko.
"What a great day in the city of Columbus. We are thrilled to be here to celebrate on this day what we've always known to be true: The Crew belong to the people of Columbus," Ginther said.
Added Edwards, the team's physician since its–and the league's–inaugural 1996 season: "My family has been in Columbus their entire lives. Our friends, our family, our values are all rooted in this community, and nothing can make us more proud than being able to help the community keep an asset that everyone values. And it really is about values and the community. ... For us to not have this team here would've left a hole in our city, and my family said that that wasn't acceptable and that we were going to do whatever we could to figure out a way to keep this team."
That they did. Garber credited the Save the Crew movement for providing the inspiration and springboard for the unlikely solution that ultimately unfolded, all while the club played on amid an uncertain future.
Out of that uncertainty has risen an incredible evolution. Haslam, who along with Edwards received the largest ovation on Wednesday, has become the league's first female owner and voice in the boardroom. Mapfre Stadium's site will be turned into a training facility and a community sports park, as the club prepares to move to a new $230 million downtown venue is constructed. Porter, in his comments, focused on three pillars–energy, innovation and trophies–to build on what Berhalter left behind under brutal circumstances, and along with Bezbatchenko, the two men with Ohio roots (Porter enjoyed much success at the University of Akron, while Bezbatchenko is an Ohio native) will set out to craft a team on the field that helps Columbus reclaim its place among the league's elite.
"I'm here because of the vision by the ownership, the fans and the city to fight for a club that means so much to the soccer community in central Ohio and, as we saw, a soccer nation," said Bezbatchenko, who added about the new ownership group that "it was clear from our first meeting that they planned to do it right in Columbus and for Columbus."
Conversely, next week in Austin, Precourt will have the club unveiling that he so desperately wanted, but it won't come at the expense of some of the league's most long-standing supporters. It will wind up being the ideal solution (well, save for other MLS expansion candidates who saw Austin cut the line), the rare one where everybody involved, eventually, comes out a winner.
Endangered species don't usually stave off extinction in the modern sports landscape, but the Crew have done more than just that. With a gorgeous new stadium on the way and forward-thinking decision makers on the field and in the front office, they're now in position to excel. That certainly didn't look like a possibility a little more than a year ago.
"It really is the dawn of a new era for our league, the relaunch of this club–a club that a little over a year ago had an uncertain future," Garber said. "It's important for all of us to take a step back and consider what has been accomplished over the last year or so here in this city. Ignited by the passion of your fans, by the Save the Crew movement ... something unprecedented in our industry and something very meaningful was accomplished."