Columbus Crew - MLS Cup 2023 - celebration pose

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Jonathan “T-Bone” Smith isn’t usually one for crying. But his tears flowed freely when referee Armando Villarreal blew full time on the Columbus Crew’s 2-1 MLS Cup final win over LAFC on Saturday.

“When the final whistle went, I just couldn't stop weeping,” the Crew supporter and sports-talk radio host told MLSsoccer.com via phone on the morning after. “It was just kind of an uncontrollable reaction. I've felt that a few times in my life and I'm ashamed to say those other times were where I got married and I had children, it was after those. That's about one of the other few times I can really remember just not being able to control my emotional output in that moment in that way.

“Instead of trying to control myself, I just said whatever, let it happen.”

Power of community

He was certainly not alone in that. This league championship, Columbus’ third, is much, much more than just a satisfying sports triumph for thousands of fans who conceived, sustained and ultimately consummated the Save The Crew movement in 2017 and 2018.

When previous Crew owner Anthony Precourt announced his intention to transplant the team to Austin, Texas just before the 2017 postseason, citing an aging stadium and subpar business metrics, the club’s most devoted supporters were shocked and hurt – yet quickly rallied and fought, methodically building a coalition that worked to prevent the move while simultaneously lobbying local, state and MLS officials and searching for new investors.

The emotions were raw and add a rare depth to everything that’s followed suit.

“For a lot of us, it was that loss of community, you know?” explained Smith, who hosts a daily show on 97.1 The Fan. “For me at least, I grew up in a religious household; your local church that you've grown up with, your local synagogue, or wherever you went through your religious experiences as a child growing up to your adulthood, it's if suddenly that just went away.

"It's not just a thing you do on Sundays. It’s the times you go to a potluck on a Thursday night to raise money for something or go hang out because someone's had a baby and you're going to shower them with gifts – you're going to do whatever. You're celebrating the good, you're hugging through the bad.

“That's what this has been for me and for a lot of people I know that are in this community."

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Forward together

Over the ensuing year, Save The Crew turned heads around MLS and North American soccer with their resourcefulness and tenacity, eventually paving the way for new owners (led by the Haslam family) to step in, with Precourt granted an expansion slot for what eventually became Austin FC.

Even in their wildest dreams, though, supporters could hardly have imagined the great heights their club has attained today.

“It takes a village, and that village started with Save The Crew,” Dr. Pete Edwards, a member of Columbus’ current ownership group and formerly the team doctor dating back to year one in 1996, told MLSsoccer.com. “And then the city and the county and the support we got from corporate central Ohio, it really was a bonding moment for our city. It isn't often that something special can happen, and something that you feel like is already lost could be saved. So it's really a fabulous time for us to be able to celebrate.”

The Crew’s future was secured with an official ownership transition on New Year’s Day 2019, and ex-head coach Caleb Porter and his team delighted the faithful with a run to the 2020 MLS Cup title. But the specter of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – Franklin County alone deeply felt the virus' effects – ebbed the euphoria. Just 1,500 spectators were allowed into Historic Crew Stadium (the first soccer-first facility in MLS history) that day and little of the usual large gatherings of a true championship party were feasible.

“2020 was a tough year,” said Edwards. “It was great for us to win, but we couldn't celebrate the way we wanted with our fans. So we're thrilled to have that opportunity now.”

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Rising to the top

Aside, perhaps, from last year’s failure to qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, the Crew’s trajectory has pointed almost constantly upward since Save The Crew was born. The club’s new training facility, the OhioHealth Performance Center, opened in June 2021, and their beautiful, luxurious downtown home of Lower.com Field debuted the following month.

The arrival of president/GM Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Wilfried Nancy revitalized the sporting side of the operation, fueled by significant investments in players like Cucho Hernández and Diego Rossi. Longtime observers say the team has never been more relevant locally, and that’s significant in the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the Midwest, with upwards of half a million new residents since the turn of the century.

The plucky, small-market underdog perceptions of yore? Today’s Crew are a model MLS club.

“It was only five years ago, it's hard to believe. It seems like so long ago,” said Edwards, widely revered as ‘Dr. Pete’ among the Crew community. “Five years ago, we were really faced with the possibility that we wouldn't have a team. And we all knew that if this team left, we were never getting another team.

“We knew we were a great city, and we knew Ohio was a great soccer community. But it felt like nobody else knew that, and to be able to show them with 16 consecutive sellouts, and selling out season tickets for next year, and all the things that have come along, we're thrilled to be able to showcase Columbus and Ohio.”

Along the way, STC became woven into the fabric of the club and their relationship with the city.

“That is a real bonding event, and I think it galvanizes a fan base when they have a shared goal and a shared plan and they're able to execute on that,” said Edwards. “Pride is the best way to say it, that we did something that nobody said we could do.”

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Making dreams come true

That made this MLS Cup final a special sort of family gathering.

Blake Compton is a foundational figure in Crew supporter culture, having first gotten involved with the Hudson Street Hooligans, one of Columbus’ first supporters’ groups, way back in 2008. He went on to start his own construction company – you can spot Compton Construction’s wordmark on the jerseys made for the STC movement – and on Saturday he hosted an informal reunion of STC participants in the upper terrace above the Nordecke supporters’ section at Lower.com Field.

Making more than 60 tickets available on a pay-what-you-can basis, Compton made some dreams come true for devoted fans who might otherwise have missed the big game. In the minutes leading up to kickoff, his eyes widened as he looked down at the Nordecke’s teeming black-and-yellow wall of loud Crew partisans and reflected on the journey to this point, readily and happily admitting he had some “back in my day” disorientation at the depth and complexity of the gameday rituals.

“We used to just have organic chants; we didn't have people throwing signs up and yelling at us what we had to chant. And that's been quite the experience for me,” Compton said with a smile. “But it's not my generation, it's not my time and what Nordecke has turned into is magic. You can hear it right now. It's just absolute beauty.

"And this, the stadium being built around this fan section, this beauty? I mean, I remember wanting to be a part of this moment, designing what we hear right now. It's exactly what we dreamed about in 2008, 2009. Like, this is what we wanted in supporter culture in America.”

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"Legacy moment"

Columbus lived through trauma, conflict and catharsis, which makes the daily bonds and routines of fandom that much sweeter – let alone this weekend’s fulfillment, with Nancy leading a cup capture during his first season in charge. And when the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy was handed to captain Darlington Nagbe and his teammates, the rain-soaked party truly began.

Despite some rocky times to get there, Edwards said it's important to remember MLS Commissioner Don Garber was part of the solution.

“The Crew wouldn't have been saved if it wasn't for Don Garber,” he said. “That's not a super popular opinion in Columbus, but having worked through that process, for months upon months, it would have been much easier for MLS to say ‘Columbus is dead’ than to do what they did.

“So every time I see him, I tell him that we may have worked hard to save the Crew in Columbus, but we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. And I think that his commitment to this market, and his ability to manage through what was a difficult situation for MLS, shows the strength of his ability, the strength of his skill in managing an extremely complex situation.”

The team’s survival is no longer in doubt, nor is their ability to thrive on and off the field. Now the faithful feel they and the squad they love have earned the right to breathe rarified air in the annals of MLS history.

“This is a legacy moment for the Crew – for the club, for the city,” said Compton. “There's only two other teams that have three [or more] stars: LA Galaxy and D.C. United.

"We’re legends at this point. We were already, as a city, legends for the first soccer-specific stadium, and that rip of almost losing our team, and saving the team, codified that legend.”

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