COLUMBUS, Ohio – When a soccer game is good, it can compress the entire range of human emotion into an exhilarating 90-minute window. We can suffer, fail and grieve, then pick ourselves up and rise to heights previously unimagined. Heroes can turn into goats; grief can turn into elation; excitement into despair.
When a game is great, it can go beyond even that. A great match can transcend all normal feeling and give a player, coach or supporter a moment of purity, a few fleeting seconds where we’re at one with ourselves and our world.
On the field, the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between Columbus Crew SC and New York City FC didn’t reach those heights. Crew SC’s 4-1 win on Tuesday night was a wildly entertaining and wide-open affair, but it was far from the cleanest match. Both teams missed several excellent chances, NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson should’ve done better on at least one of Crew SC’s goals and the Columbus backline was a bit off all night.
But the aesthetics didn’t matter to anyone in attendance at MAPFRE Stadium. For those in the stands, Tuesday’s match will long live on its own.
The first game to be played in Columbus since news broke earlier this month that Crew owner Anthony Precourt is considering moving the team to Austin after the 2018 season, Tuesday’s contest was much, much more than a high-stakes playoff battle for Crew SC supporters.
“This isn’t a game,” one fan told me before the match. “This is a rally.”
Columbus fans have been through the ringer over the past couple of weeks. The Austin news dropped like a bomb just ahead of the team’s Oct. 22 regular season finale at NYCFC, and was quickly followed by an onslaught of media coverage, social media campaigning, a couple of major rallies and an insane Knockout Round match at Atlanta.
Fans’ emotions ahead of the match were all over the place, ranging from angry and indignant to sad and resigned. Some feel the team is as good as gone. Others held out hope for a potential stay. Regardless of whether they thought there’s a chance of Crew SC remaining in Columbus beyond next winter, every supporter I spoke with was fiercely proud of the team.
They saw Tuesday as their chance to show all of MLS just what the team means to them. And while they fell short of capacity (14,416 attended 19,968 capacity MAPFRE Stadium), those who showed up on a chilly Halloween night tapped deep into a vein of unadulterated love.
The entire stadium was rowdy from the jump, their enthusiasm culminating after Harrison Afful’s excellent stoppage-time finish that gave Columbus the 4-1 lead heading into Sunday’s Leg 2 at Yankee Stadium (5 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes; TSN, TVAS). That passion trickled down to the field, where the players engaged in wild goal celebrations and head coach Gregg Berhalther took off on a full sprint down the sideline following the third and fourth goals. He said after the game that he’d never celebrated a goal like that in six years as a coach.
“We repurposed our mission, and it’s solely to play for the fans and give them as many home games as we can and let them enjoy something,” Berhalter said. “And tonight, for them, I can imagine was an enjoyable night.”
There was no question about that. After the final whistle, Berhalter and the Crew SC players made their way to the Nordecke supporters’ section in a corner of MAPFRE Stadium. There, the party raged, if only for a few minutes. Longtime Crew SC attacker Justin Meram sprinted to the stands, yelling, beating his chest and signing along with supporters. Striker Ola Kamara grabbed a megaphone a minute later, leading the crowd in a couple of chants of his own.
It was a poignant moment for both players. It clearly meant a lot to the supporters, too, about 100 of whom stuck around after the team made their way into the locker room, chanting “we’re not done yet” into the night.
“You could feel it, the atmosphere was unbelievable from the beginning,” said Kamara. “With everything around it too, it’s a game that’s [been] built up a lot. I think the fans came here today to show what they stand for, and for us to win 4-1 and be able to celebrate with the fans like that, it’s a good feeling.”
“I’ve been here my whole career,” added Meram. “This place is special to me, it’s shaped me into the man I am today, the player I am on the field, off the field. I just have so much love for this city, and when you can get a win like this with everything going around and to see the crowd like this, it was electric. I can’t wait to tweet something out to just thank them all, because they definitely lifted our spirits.”