The Columbus Crew is not supposed to be here right now.
Not “here,” as in Major League Soccer’s championship game, M.L.S. Cup, against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday night — though for some fans that feels unlikely enough.
But here, in Ohio, they said. The team’s home. Their home.
Their path to Saturday’s final begins in October 2017, when Crew fans received the nauseating news that the owner of their beloved team — an M.L.S. original that began play in the city in 1996 — was angling, with the support of the league office, to uproot the entire operation and move it to Austin, Texas.
It was a devastating revelation, precisely because Crew fans knew how these things often go: rich owners, omnipotent leagues — in American sports, they tend to get their way. In Ohio they knew this all too well. Just look at what happened to the Cleveland Browns, they said.
But the self-pity lasted only a moment. Then came anger and determination and, soon, organization. Keeping their team in Columbus, in defiance of the wishes of wealthy and powerful forces, felt like a long shot. But they would try.
Their energies coalesced behind a simple slogan — Save The Crew — but the campaign was more than just a hashtag. Behind the scenes, a group of almost two dozen longtime fans assembled itself into a leadership team that had the energy, and long hours, of a buzzy start-up.
The group included graphic designers, public relations specialists, lawyers and anyone else who had an angle they could work. Their message traveled far. Fans of opposing teams extended their sympathies. Some even flew the Crew colors in solidarity. If it can happen to them, other fans said, it can happen to us.
In time, public officials and community leaders in Ohio took up the cause, exercising whatever leverage might they could muster. Twelve thousand fans signed a pledge to purchase tickets if the team stayed in the area. The pressure points on the owner behind the move, Anthony Precourt, and the league increased. Slowly the tide began to turn.
In October 2018, the parties began working on a deal to transfer ownership of the Crew to an investment group that included Jimmy and Dee Haslam, the owners of the Browns, and Pete Edwards, the longtime Crew team doctor. The new owners pledged to keep the club in Columbus, an announcement that set off a volcanic blast of joy and relief that in some ways has yet to settle.
The fight to save the Crew, still fresh in everyone’s memory, has made the team’s unlikely ascent to the championship game this season that much sweeter.
The goal is to win the match, of course.
But in some sense, maybe more than the average sports fan, they’re all just happy to be here. In Columbus. Still home.
DAVID MILLER, 31, joined the leadership group of Save The Crew, helping out with communications.
I was angry. I didn’t sleep well. And the next day I was still angry. Within the following week or so I saw this movement had been started, a website, a Twitter handle. I was following media clips. My wife kept telling me, if you keep getting angry, you’re going to have to do something about it.
People who had skills kept popping up. We needed an attorney, and an attorney appeared. We needed someone who could submit records requests, and someone came out of the blue who was good at that. It’s amazing that all these volunteers came out of the woodwork and were interested in fighting the machine and came prepared.
“Save the Crew” was seen in Columbus as a battle between good and evil. That’s a motivating story for a lot of people, how the fans, the community, banded together to fight the millionaires and billionaires.
KAREN CROGNALE, 55, is a longtime fan of the Crew, a former club employee and the mother of a former Columbus player.
This is a closer-knit community compared to Ohio State. You could run into Crew players at the grocery store, at the mall. They were approachable. And it still feels that way.
When we found out the team was going to be saved, I was by myself. I sat on my bed and sobbed. Over a sports team! It seems crazy. But that was the emotional toll it took on us all year.
Fans can recall Frankie Hejduk’s header for a goal in 2008. I can’t recall moments. It’s never been about the team or how well it did or if we made the playoffs. For me, it was the place my kids grew up, where we raised our family, the friends we made in the stadium, the parking lot. It was not about the game of soccer. It was about everything outside the pitch. And if the team leaves, that’s what we lose.
FRANKIE HEJDUK, 46, a beloved former player who was still working for the team, had to walk a fine line during the Save the Crew campaign.
I like to focus on the positive, but it was tough. I couldn’t say much during it. I was employed by the club. So I had to do what I had to do. But the fans, I think, know how I felt. I think they felt for me, whether they knew or not. And if they didn’t, I was going to have a beer with them after the game and tell them. But openly I couldn’t say much.
When they saved the team, that was probably the seventh-best moment of my life. I have four kids and a wife. So those are top five. The sixth is winning the M.L.S. Cup in 2008 with the Crew. I’ve played with the national team. I’ve been in the Olympics. I’ve won other M.L.S. Cups. But that might have been No. 7.
JOHN ZIDAR, 33, used his design skills to help with the branding of “Save The Crew” movement.
We would get my dad season tickets for his birthday slash Christmas, and he would alternate taking me or my brother or my sister. I met most of my closest friends through the team. I go with my brother now, still. It permeates every part of my life.
During “Save The Crew” my dad passed away, and he didn’t get to see that we saved them. So having them here now is nice, like I still have a piece of him that I can enjoy. It means the world to me, possibly in ways I can’t necessarily put into words.
RANDI LEPPLA, 36, has had Crew season tickets since 2009.
We’ve seen relocations all the time. It’s based on money. You have to account for that. But that’s not how soccer works anywhere else in the world. There is an identity to teams, and their identity is the community.
Save The Crew jerseys, yard signs, stickers, bumpers stickers — they were everywhere. Local businesses were putting things up in their shops. It was a very quick turnaround from, ‘Oh no this is so sad,’ to, ‘What are we going to do to fight this?’
We weren’t supposed to have a team this year, and here we are. Winning would be a fairy tale ending for us. It’d be quite a way to close out a two-year victory lap, if you will.
DEE HASLAM, 66, was a newcomer to soccer when she and her husband, the Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, bought the team.
We’re really excited for Columbus and for our fans, with them having gone through the process of almost losing a team. Cleveland lost a team. We obviously came in much later into that story, but you still hear the stories. It was a crushing thing. So when we heard about the Columbus Crew and that they might leave Ohio, we were just like: “That can’t happen. That’s terrible for a community.”
Standing on the field for the conference championship [last weekend], it was like, Oh my gosh, we’re really here. We’re in the finals. It’s the M.L.S. Cup. We haven’t slept, really. When you lose, there’s a lot of tension and a lot of stress. When you win, and you’re expecting to win, the stress is even worse.