Anger, community and the incredible Columbus Crew story that isn't going away

Columbus Crew fans brought #SaveTheCrew banners of all shapes, colors and sizes. (AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Ben Hoelzel arrived at the corner of Korbel Avenue and Black and Gold Boulevard on Tuesday afternoon, butterflies filled his stomach. It was the first time they had done so before a Columbus Crew game since he was a kid. Hoelzel, now the vice president of Crew Supporters Union, had grown up on the club. He was at the team’s inaugural game in 1996, its first at Crew Stadium three years later, and has been at many of its 20-plus MLS playoff games since.

But Tuesday was different. The first leg of Columbus’ conference semifinal series against NYCFC was different. That’s why the butterflies reappeared.

The scene in a parking lot to the south of Mapfre Stadium, though, was familiar. Music pumped through the stiff 40-degree air. Beer from local breweries flowed. And when Hoelzel and Donny Murray looked around the corner of the lot, they didn’t see strangers; they saw family.

Literally, in Murray’s case. He and his brother, Jason, have run the Murderers’ Row supporters group for several years. Their fandom is a crucial piece of their relationship, just as it is for thousands of others.

The familial feel is one of the many reasons Crew fans have fought the possibility of relocation so fiercely. Three hours before Tuesday’s game, one of the 200 or so tailgaters looked over his shoulder to see a teenager in a Crew jersey juggling a soccer ball. There is now an entire generation of 30-somethings who were once that kid. They can’t fathom raising their own children without being able to give them a similar experience.

But in the end, they are only few hundred. And hours later, only 14,416 people filed into Mapfre, less than three-quarters capacity. The upper decks on either side of the ground were half-empty.

In a way, those vacant slabs of bleachers and unfilled yellow seats, and that number, 14,416, validate owner Anthony Precourt’s flirtation with Austin. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said that Columbus “is near the bottom of the League in all business metrics,” and called its attendance “concerning.” Precourt has said that “the current course is not sustainable.”

But break down that number, 14,416, into the people that constitute it, and Tuesday night instead offered countless examples that invalidate Precourt’s right to pick up the club and run.

* * * * *

There are two sides to any story, and although in this situation one side has been incessantly vocal while the other has been largely silent, Precourt’s deserves to be heard. He has invested money, without which the club would not be able to function. The question is whether that gives him the power to do whatever he pleases to increase the club’s profitability.

“It’s a debate that’s not just a debate with soccer, but a debate with business,” says Alex Fischer, the president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership. “Every business that I’m involved in wants to make money. But there’s also the concept of the triple bottom line, and making profit with a purpose.”

In other words, as Fischer poses it: “Are [clubs] community assets that are a part of the fabric of communities? Or are they the playground of the super rich?”

Or, perhaps, can they be both? Precourt wants to make money, and that’s fine. But isn’t it possible to make money without ripping a prized possession out of the hands of thousands of people?

There is nothing more difficult than quantifying the value of that prized possession; the hurt that stealing it would inflict; the extent to which club and community are inextricably linked.

But there is no better way to do so than to feel the connection. And there was no better time to feel it than Tuesday night. In the supporters section alone, toddlers sat in the laps of their fathers; middle-aged men and women embraced stadium stewards as they made their ways to their seats; two preteen brothers held up one of many homemade banners with the rallying cry, “SaveTheCrew.” At the front of one section, a similar banner had been hung. This one had the signatures of hundreds of fans who had rallied nine days earlier at City Hall.

Columbus Crew fans signed a banner at a rally at City Hall on Sunday, Oct. 22. The banner was displayed at the NYCFC game. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Then in the 89th minute, thousands draped their arms around their neighbors. And, in unison, they sung: “Take my hand, Take my whole life too, But I can’t help falling in love with Crew.”

The sense of community was and is inescapable. It’s what has made the Save The Crew movement so special.

But the thought of it being shattered has also elicited anger. The anger has had two weeks to boil. Tuesday was the first opportunity to let it all out, and naturally, it spilled out of the mouths of many.

* * * * *

“C-R-E, Double-U, F*** you Precourt, We are the Crew.”

The chant made its first appearance before kickoff, and was repeated intermittently throughout the match. It wasn’t the only one, either. “F*** you Precourt” was inserted into several traditional tunes in place of generic lyrics. And it was shouted at random intervals.

Spoken word wasn’t the only medium for anger. Many banners and signs contained messages directed at the city’s newest villain, referring to him as a vulture or a snake. One fan even brought an inflatable snake into the stadium. Others alleged that their banners were confiscated after previously being approved.

One defining, stated feature of the Save The Crew movement has been its positivity. One of its leaders, John Zidar, specifically refrains from mentioning Precourt by name. The group has not once used it on social media. They hoped their message would drown out the obscenities and hate. It didn’t succeed entirely.

But it was certainly the more resounding message. Simple “save the Crew” chants shook the press box in the first half. Those three words were the most common cry, whether coordinated or spontaneous. They were emblazoned on printed and handmade signs all around the stadium. They were on the banner flown over the stadium by an airplane for two hours before kickoff, while Precourt’s name was nowhere to be found.

Two Columbus Crew fans hold banners during the match against NYCFC. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Precourt attended the match, his first visible appearance in the city since the announcement two weeks prior. His presence was, of course, a subject of interest. But the night wasn’t about him. It was about the players, the fans and the connection between them.

“We repurposed our mission,” Crew manager Greg Berhalter said after the match. “It’s solely to play for the fans and give them as many home games as we can and let them enjoy something.

“And tonight, for them, I can imagine was an enjoyable night.”

* * * * *

The smoke first rose, and the streamers first flew, in the sixth minute. It’s almost as if they never stopped flying. They reappeared three times in the second half. Underneath them, black-and-gold-clad fans bounced, and hugged, and maybe even pinched themselves. Columbus’ 4-1 victory left it anything except a disaster away from the Eastern Conference final, and left its supporters in dreamland.

Tuesday was not a normal day, which is why those butterflies arrived in Hoelzel’s stomach hours earlier. Nor was Tuesday a normal win, which is why the celebrations after Harrison Afful’s brilliant stoppage-time goal were particularly joyous. The sense that the league doesn’t want them here has strengthened fans’ resolve. The knowledge that every additional game is an opportunity to have their voices heard makes victory that much more important. Tuesday’s wasn’t simply a step toward a championship; it will likely offer more visibility and platforms to a group that depends on both. “We’re not done yet,” fans chanted after the final whistle. And they weren’t just talking about soccer games.

Fifteen minutes later, many of them headed for the exits, but the diehards stuck around, posing for photos, screaming into a television camera, lingering so as to cling to the moment. The atmosphere was tinged with relief. But it was mostly one of pure glee.

Finally, hours after even the stragglers had descended into the night, after clean-up crews had returned Mapfre to its pre-match state, only two emblems of the night remained. Two banners, one at either end of the stadium, fluttered in the early-morning wind. They displayed identical messages.

“#SaveTheCrew”

(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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