Commentary: In a city marked by change, Columbus Crew SC remains a powerful, unifying force | SIDELINE

In the beginning of Columbus Crew SC, there was no MAPFRE  Stadium. There was no no Nordecke; there were no chants of “Glory to Columbus” rattling the city’s night sky.

In fact, Crew SC reflects the city that it was born in, most notably in how much it has changed over the years.

But on the team’s first spring game night in 1996, on the field at Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium there were the staple colors, black and gold. There was the city’s first professional sports star, Brian McBride, ripping up and down the pitch during a 4-0 thrashing of soon-to-be rivals D.C. United. There was a college football city, starved for professional sports, watching this new game played in Buckeyes mecca.

And most memorably, as I noted that day from the crowd, there were flags:American flags, the flag of Columbus, and those of a host of other nations. The flag of Ghana waved high in the nosebleed seats. A group right below where I stood waved the Jamaican flag. In a section to our right, a small group of children, close to my age at the time, held the Somali flag in their hands, beaming.

The team’s come a long way since then—up to hosting the 2015 MLS Cup FInal this Sunday, Dec. 6. All those years of change reflect change in the city itself.

When discussing Crew SC’s importance to Columbus, it is necessary to first understand Columbus, the city in which I’ve spent most of my life. Columbus is quintessentially Midwestern, in layout,  population temperament, and ice cream selection. It will never be New York or Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t keep occasionally trying to compete, sometimes at the cost of its own communities. At the same time, Columbus has almost always been a place where those who have been displaced—by urgent desire or by circumstances beyond their control—can resettle and find comfort.

Crew SC came along at an important time for the city In 1995, Columbus welcomed a large number of Somali refugees, drawn to it  by its cost of living, plentiful jobs for multilingual adults, and welfare programs headed up by the Somali Community Association of Ohio, which helped refugees with recovery from Somalia’s civil war.

Today, Columbus boasts the second-largest Somali population in the U.S., many on the city’s Northside. Around this time, the number of Ghanaian immigrants in Columbus also rose, creating a culture shift in the heart of Columbus, especially among youth, many of whom were assimilating into new schools and looking for new outputs for energy and pride.

Cliché as it may be, soccer remains a universal language. So in 1999, when Crew SC got its own stadium, it stood as a central meeting point for these converging communities, where all the contents of Columbus’ melting pot could be poured out and blended together. And now, in a city marked by development, gentrification, and flux, it remains one of the most reliable places for this to continue.

The stands still fill with people from every corner of a city that, because of these forces, pulls them further and further away from each other every year. The Hudson Street Hooligans chant while La Turbina Amarilla plays their bass and snare drums along with the chants. Flags of nations still blanket the stadium—Mexico, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and still, of course, Somalia.

When the game ends, everyone drives to their respective parts of the city. Some people drive past places they can no longer afford; some people drive to expensive apartment buildings that replaced the lower-income housing that stood there before. There is no way to romanticize how a city can eat its own, and who it leaves behind in the process.

But Crew SC, for nearly two decades now, has provided a source of pride and unity. A home game is a place where you can come and see yourself reflected both on the field and in the stands, whether your parents escaped a country embroiled in civil war, or if you’re simply escaping your parents in the suburbs for the night.

When people doubt the power of North American soccer, I imagine they have never walked outside of MAPFRE Stadium at halftime of a game and seen young Somali kids on the mini-pitch, dazzling the kids from the suburban select teams with their footwork and energy. I imagine they’ve never seen a child’s eyes light up with the realization of what is possible when Wil Trapp, a product of a Columbus suburb mere miles from the stadium, takes the field in the city where he was raised.

They’ve probably never seen the eyes of a Ghanaian while Harrison Afful tears along the edges of the field, defending and attacking with reckless abandon. I imagine they’ve probably also never tried to make their way through the parking lot after a Crew SC victory, before giving up, getting out of their car, and chanting and singing along with whatever supporters are left, stretching their joy for as long as possible. These things, all of them, matter a great deal. The game is a beautiful game, indeed, and its meaning goes well beyond the game itself.

Late in leg two of this year’s 2015 Audi MLS Cup Eastern Conference Semifinal, with the series tied 3-3 on the aggregate, I had resigned myself to hoping for penalty kicks. And then, the team’s fortunes changed in an instant.

With only a few minutes left in extra time, beloved Crew SC star Kei Kamara, a refugee who escaped war in Sierra Leone with his family at 16, took a cross from Congolese left winger Cedrick Mabwati and headed home the game-winning goal.

It was a moment that will, without question, go down as one of Columbus’ greatest sports moments. And Kamara sprinted to MAPFRE’s north corner, stood tall, and bathed in the gold and black. It was clear, then, that  the most important thing about Crew SC has never changed. As conflicting forces push and pull on the city I live, unsure of what it wants to become, the team is an important thing that still unites.

Follow Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on Twitter at @NifMuhammad