On a hot Midwest day two years ago, the Columbus Crew beat the Portland Timbers 1-0 at what was then Columbus Crew Stadium.
By the end of the season, the Timbers would be Western Conference champions playing a slick style of soccer under a young manager with confidence and vision. The Crew was mired in a stretch in which they’d lose six of seven games. They were going nowhere.
But in this one match, Columbus took the lead early off a goal from Bernardo Anor. Just a few minutes later, they got a penalty and red card to Portland’s Pa Modou Kah.
But Federico Higuain would miss the penalty, and Columbus would spend the next 80 minutes of the game clinging onto a lead against a team with 10 men.
After the match, longtime Crew manager Robert Warzycha somewhat bizarrely complimented his team on the nature their performance, noting the challenge of playing up a man – which led Timbers defender Mikael Silvestre to quip, “have they been playing up a man all season?”
It was the team’s last win of the Hunt era. In late July, the family that founded the club would sell to Anthony Precourt – who wasn’t deterred by the Crew Stadium scoreboard bursting into flames on his first visit to the club that spring.
Precourt had big ideas. Nothing about a club that likes to call itself the first in MLS was out of bounds.
Warzycha would last just a month. Precourt fired him on the second day of September, wanting to bring in his own man. Warzycha’s son, who started that Portland game, would be released at the end of the year. Brian Bliss, who had been Columbus’ technical director for the better part of a decade, was out as well. He landed with the rival Chicago Fire.
It didn’t take long for Precourt to find his new man. Gregg Berhalter, a veteran of two USA World Cup teams, was plucked from his managerial job in Sweden and given the keys to the castle in Columbus.
Meticulous, organized, and exacting, Berhalter went about rebooting the team on the field. Predominantly using young players and an up-tempo, exciting style, the Crew returned to the playoffs in Precourt’s first full year in 2014.
Off the field, there have been all kinds of changes as well. A new scoreboard – an upgrade from the one that burned when Precourt visited in 2013 – was brought in immediately.
After buying the team, Precourt was the first to notice that the club’s logo didn’t make any sense. Columbus is a progressive, young, college town just coming of age – it’s not Pittsburgh. The hard hats and blue-collar vibe was traded in after 20 years for a slick new crest before this season.
Precourt also found a stadium sponsor – something the Hunts had tried and failed for years to do – an insurance company Mapfre. Precourt got rid of goal music, got a new TV deal, and was rewarded when the Crew broke its attendance record last year.
In the new big money era of MLS, Precourt’s Columbus and clubs like it are establishing the alternative way to win. Find a hot, young manager, establish a club-wide vision, spend smartly, and connect with the community.
The Hunts were absolutely vital to soccer in America. There is a statue of Lamar just inside the gates at Mapfre Stadium, and the stadium is located on Lamar Hunt Way. But under the Hunts, the Columbus Crew was completely stagnated.
Precourt is constantly innovating – he’s even on the doorstep of ditching the club’s iconic banana-yellow kits – but for the most part, the easy part is done. Precourt’s next real challenge is changing the deeply imbedded culture of the club and creating a model for the clubs like it MLS.
This is still soccer in Columbus, and there is no shaking the small-time feel that makes the Crew experience at the same time cozy and slightly minor-league. Attendance for the July fourth game this year was around 14,000.
For the Crew’s playoff game last year, albeit in bad weather, it was just over 9,000. Soccer isn’t a big deal in Ohio, but it needs to be if MLS wants to be the best league it can be.
What Precourt’s models – notably Sporting Kansas City and the Timbers – have that the Crew doesn’t have is rabid fan support. Precourt, who talked about making the team’s brand more “exciting” in his introduction, now has a club that is crossed between the first years and the cutting edge of MLS.
At some point, Precourt knows he might need a new stadium – a project that will be extremely difficult to pull off. Mapfre Stadium was built in just nine months – a stone’s throw from the freeway on the cheap in a time when that was the only way to have a soccer stadium.
Columbus’ stadium is the oldest soccer-specific stadium in America, but the cheap, suburban MLS stadium is a problem that Chicago, Colorado, Dallas and others all have to varying degrees.
Kansas City’s renaissance seems like an anomaly. For most MLS clubs, a turn around won’t be so simple or spectacular.
On the field, Columbus will continue to grow. Precourt’s faith in Berhalter is extremely strong, and the power that Berhalter wields in soccer operations is huge. In Columbus, Berhalter is sporting director first and head coach second.
Kei Kamara has been one of the best players in the league this season, Higuian continues to be a riot, Wil Trapp is returning from injury, and with a little defensive strength, the Crew is a playoff lock.
What’s happening in Columbus is a fascinating story for American soccer. As MLS is increasingly divided into haves and have nots, it’s the have nots like Columbus that are going to hold the league back.
How far can Precourt take his revolution? It’s one of the most long-term important stories in MLS.
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