COLUMBUS, Ohio – When a collection of club legends descended on a sold-out MAPFRE Stadium to honor the unveiling of the top moments in Columbus Crew SC history on Saturday evening, it was a “night and day” difference from when many played in Columbus.
Speaking on a panel before the club’s 2-1 loss to Portland, former Columbus and US national team goalkeeper Brad Friedel praised the work of owner Anthony Precourt and head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter.
Friedel says he tries to make it to Columbus for a match at least once each year, but that didn’t stop him from marveling at the differences between MAPFRE and Crew SC's days at Ohio Stadium.
“Playing in the Horseshoe compared to the stadium now, seeing the redevelopments that Gregg put in at Obetz [the club's training facility], there are really good strides that the club is taking,” Friedel said. “You see the progress that Gregg has made on the field as well, from last season to this season. There’s a lot more of a buzz in the city, and it just keeps getting better and better every time I come back.”
That buzz has largely come on the back of a rebranding effort that changed the club's logo and added “SC” to the name.
And while the club has set records for attendance this season, a positive atmosphere is nothing new to the Columbus soccer scene. American soccer legend Brian McBride recalled the unique connection early players had to the Columbus fan community.
“As players, we always wanted to play professional soccer, we just never had the opportunity,” he said. “Now we were here in Columbus and we had that opportunity, and it was one of those things where everyone was very positive about what the Crew was doing, who they were – in a city that was basically Ohio State.
“It was an open-arms situation. You talk to other guys in different markets in the country and playing in different places and they had crazy stories about how there was no connection with the community. We knew we had something special.”
Panelists all agreed that the changes have been a positive. But – as former players often do – they emphasized the importance of growing on the field as well.
“I think we can all agree that the rebranding needed to take place and I think it was a step in the right direction,” Friedel said. “Does that make a great club or is the product on the field going to be different? No. But I think it helps with a rejuvenation process within the city.”
Longtime MLS striker and ESPN analyst Alejandro Moreno agreed, citing Sporting Kansas City’s recent success.
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“When you compare, say, the rebranding at Sporting Kansas City, it only becomes successful because Sporting Kansas City is winning on the field,” he said. “It’s all good to have a press conference to show a new jersey, to have a new logo, these things. But in the end, it’s what’s happening inside the locker room and taking that out on the field.
“The way people respond is to players that are working for each other, getting results and doing it consistently.”
As teams like SKC and Crew SC push the envelope, Friedel suggested that MLS will continue to grow. And if a young Friedel had been in Columbus in 2015 instead of 1996, things might have been different.
“Would the likes of myself have tried so hard to go to Europe if something like Columbus Crew existed like this – in its stage right now – back then? Maybe not,” he said. “This is a very good place to be and to develop. It’s completely different, at all levels, from coaching to fans’ support to fans’ knowledge to sponsorship levels to television levels. It’s just night and day, and for the better.”