Columbus playoff triumph foreshadows an awkward 2018

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With potential relocation to Austin looming, Crew SC marches toward MLS Cup - and an unknown future.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A war between fans’ support of their team and contempt for an owner who may move their franchise has made for one of the most unique and awkward environments in recent memory.

A noisy announced crowd of 14,416 in Columbus greeted the Crew in its 4-1 win over New York City FC on Tuesday night in Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was an emphatic victory for a team which might not be around beyond next year.

But those same fans, who stood on their feet for much of the match, were less welcoming to the team’s owner, who made a surprise appearance just two weeks after announcing that he was considering moving the team to Austin, Texas.

The match was the first Columbus had hosted since owner Anthony Precourt announced he was looking into relocating the team to Austin, Texas. Precourt quietly made his first appearance in Columbus since the announcement, and he was greeted with expected hostility from Columbus fans.

“C-R-E-W, f*** you Precourt, we are the Crew,” was the most popular chant of the night.

While Crew fans directed their ire toward Precourt, he stood and watched from a secluded corner of the stadium, where he was captured by curious fans and ESPN cameras alike. He never made an appearance outside of his area of the stadium, and has still not said anything to Columbus publicly since a series of tweets from Oct. 19.

With his handling of the two preceding weeks, Precourt has put himself in an awkward position as his scorching hot team streaks toward the Eastern Conference finals.

Columbus fans have made it clear that they don’t want the team’s owner anywhere near their club, an awkward dance for the man who also needs to be convinced that the market can support a team.

In the parking lot and stands, fans displayed #SaveTheCrew banners and merchandise. In the pre-game Columbus skies, fans hired an aircraft to carry a banner that read “Keep the Crew in Columbus –”

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Precourt (right) looks on. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Many onlookers noted that the crowd seemed larger than the announced attendance number. The situation is ironically reminiscent of the movie “Major League,” where the new owner of another Ohio team, the Cleveland Indians, must plummet ticket sales low enough to move the team to Miami.

Columbus fans organized their own advertisements on Facebook to try to sell tickets, citing a lack of marketing from the team. The Columbus Partnership, a local group working to keep the team in Columbus, bought 100 tickets and donated them to Ohio State students who wanted to go to the game.

How much recent news influenced the size of the crowd on a Tuesday night is impossible to know. The reported attendance was nearly 5,000 smaller than Columbus’ home leg of the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinal, which the Crew won en route to a berth in MLS Cup. Two Sundays later in 2015, Columbus boasted a crowd of 21,617 for its home leg of the Eastern Conference final. Was the smaller crowd in 2017 a product of a Tuesday night kickoff? Did some fans stay away to spite Precourt? Or was the attendance evidence of the issues which Precourt sites as reasons to leave the market?

Given the uncertainty surrounding their franchise, Crew fans were well aware that their home games may be numbered, and despite the match being played on a Halloween weeknight, they did their best to make their presence known.

In the stadium, the Nordecke – Columbus’ supporters section – was filled with two-stick banner displays ranging from “Don’t tread on C-Bus” to “They don’t want us here,” a reference to a quote recently made popular by Crew captain Wil Trapp.

Precourt has yet to officially announce that he wants to move to Austin, and has maintained – despite a reported clause built into his 2013 purchase agreement, which allows him to move the team to Austin  – that he’s willing to keep the team in Columbus if they can find a way to build a downtown stadium. But 2018 looks like it will be a lame-duck year in Columbus.

So while the “team of destiny” designation is tossed around too freely in sports, it’s beginning to have truth for the Crew. The team is now undefeated in 12 matches while in the midst of a potential relocation.

After Columbus’ 4-1 win over New York City FC, Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter acknowledged that Columbus fans don’t know how many more of these matches they have left.

“We repurposed our mission right now,” he said, “and it’s solely to play for the fans and give them as many home games as we can and let them enjoy something.”

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