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‘Everything that’s wrong with MLS’: Gutted Columbus Crew fans contemplate life without a team

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Mourning Columbus Crew fans won't let their team go without a fight. They also know this could happen to anyone.

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Since news leaked that Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt was considering moving the team to Austin, Texas, Crew fans have heard a plethora of versions of a common refrain: It’s not personal; it’s just business.

When Precourt spoke explained himself to reporters, he offered the same sentiment in a variety of ways. He talked about the club’s “long-term viability,” “sustainability” and “efforts to move the needle.”

What he didn’t discuss was how his decisions will affect blindsided fans in Columbus.

To me, this move is everything that’s wrong with MLS. And, on a much smaller level, this feels like the Browns being torn away from Ohio all over again.

- Crew fan Christian Zylstra

When asked if those fans are owed an apology for Precourt’s continued statements about “commitment” and “long-term” plans for Columbus, the owner disregarded the idea completely. Instead, he asked them to appreciate his business savvy.

“I stand by what I said,” he said. “I know the Crew fans are avid fans. I want to make the statement that I recognize their love for the club and that they put their heart and soul into this club every Wednesday and Saturday. But we’re trying to be a successful club here. We’re trying to take the next step. So I hope you guys recognize the ambition.”

That ambition led to fans unwittingly renewing season tickets for a team that may be gone after 2018. The club had already let season-ticket renewals begin processing without offering refunds, and Precourt has publicly said that this process has been in the works since early 2016.

It’s not personal; it’s just business.

‘Like the Browns torn from Ohio all over again’

For Crew fans, the issue is extremely personal. Many took to social media to express their anger, resentment, sadness and general discontent. The overwhelming feeling was one of helplessness as the world of business engulfed the fans.

“I often feel as if I live and die by the actions of the team on the field; they can make my week or ruin my month over the course of 90 minutes,” said Crew fan Eric Robertson, 33, who has supported the team for a decade. “For once, it seems our fate is sealed in an office in California.”

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

And while FC Cincinnati’s ambitions have been rightly added to the conversation about the potential Crew move, many Crew fans say the loss of their team would mean the loss of an MLS viewer entirely – especially for Ohioans who have a connection to the Cleveland Browns, like 22-year-old Christian Zylstra.

“To me, this move is everything that’s wrong with MLS,” Zylstra said. “And, on a much smaller level, this feels like the Browns being torn away from Ohio all over again. If this move happens, I probably will never watch a Crew or MLS match again. The Crew are my strongest tie to MLS, and if that’s severed, that relationship will wither.”

If there is going to be a funeral for the Columbus Crew, I am going to make sure that I am way too exhausted to attend it.

- Crew fan Morgan Hughes

But out of the agony and the uncertainty, a different overarching tone solidified: What now?

“I’m gutted, but can’t decide how to feel; I’m wondering how to take action,” said Deanna Moore, 24, who grew up alongside the Crew since age 3. “Is there anything the fans can collectively do to make a difference that doesn’t hurt the situation further, if there’s even a chance this can be reversed?”

Fellow supporters to show solidarity

Morgan Hughes – a longtime Crew fan and organizer of tifo efforts, supporter summits, art projects and a host of other Crew-related activities – was one of the many fans who flocked to Hendoc’s Pub Tuesday night, a local supporter hangout less than two miles from Mapfre Stadium. Hughes said the gathering had the mood of a funeral.

People were crying. Fans who hadn’t been around the team in recent years were in attendance. On-again, off-again bloggers from years gone by came to sympathize with their fellow fans. But for Hughes and others, the gathering was an opportunity for far more than condolences and pity.

Instead, Hughes found that he and others weren’t ready to concede their team to Austin. He said he decided he was “done being (Precourt’s) victim,” and others were in agreement.

“If there is going to be a funeral for the Columbus Crew, I am going to make sure that I am way too exhausted to attend it,” Hughes said. “There’s not going to be an ounce of energy left in me.”

Now, a movement has begun. Fans, led by the enthusiasm of Hughes and others who won’t go down without a fight, are using social media, word of mouth and old-fashioned letter-writing campaigns to spread their message far and wide.

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Hughes said he’s heard from at least one supporters group from almost every MLS team, each asking how it can help and what the plan is for Sunday’s games. Actions discussed amongst supporters league-wide include Columbus chants and yellow shirts and banners to show solidarity. Hughes has also heard from a Premier League team’s fan base which plans to have “#SaveTheCrew” banners on display this weekend.

For Hughes, the process is as “overwhelming” as any soccer-oriented project he’s undertaken. But it’s not all on him. Some fans are focused on helping and encouraging would-be ownership groups based in Columbus. Some are asking fans of any club to call MLS owners in hopes that they’ll vote down the move. But the common thread for all the efforts is that they all orient around finances.

“This is the point we need to make very, very clear to everybody: if you can do this to Columbus, you can do this to any team,” Hughes said. “We are all at risk here, not just Columbus Crew. … (MLS) needs to know that we know that, and we find it wholly and completely unacceptable. This agreement between fans and teams goes both ways, and it can be canceled at any time by either side.

“They think it can only be canceled on one side, but there are more of us than there are of them, and they need us way more than we need them. They need to know that.”

It’s not personal; it’s just business.

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