As the rogue wheel hurdled down the busy highway towards my car, I found myself with enough time to think, “wow, I didn’t expect to have a near-death experience on this trip.” That was literally my first thought as the bouncing mass of steel and rubber came into my view; not “maybe I should swerve to the shoulder. like the car in front of me did.”
In the end, the angle of the wheel was far too extreme to put my car in danger, and it bounced safely to the side of the highway without incident. Still, I wasn’t expecting something like that. Nor was I expecting such a perfect metaphor for the 20th MLS Cup final.
But metaphors can wait. We’re not quite there yet. In fact, let’s rewind a few miles.
I was about 40 miles outside of Columbus the day before the cup final when I saw the first Crew SC jersey drive past me. As excited as I was for the match, I was more excited to see how the city of Columbus would react to their MLS franchise, one of the 10 founders, not only hosting the season’s final match, but being favored in it as well. I wanted to find out just how much the city was up for this one – just how much hype came with their two-decade-old club hosting the single biggest event of the MLS season.
I avoided things like training sessions and press conferences. Let me tell you, those are novel to attend initially, but that novelty does wear off. The real exciting stuff, the real stories, are found in the supporters. It’s the guy who works at the cell phone kiosk at the mall who has printed out a plain, 8 x 11½ sheet of paper, that reads “Go Crew!” and tapes it to his stand (this really happened), who will gladly tell you his experience of being at the first match Columbus ever played. That guy will tell you more of the story than standing pitchside during a training session.
Pro tip: if you’re ever visiting a new city and want to know where the “spots” are — I mean the really great spots that the average tourist won’t ever even know about — email the local visitors bureau. If you’re lucky (like I was), you’ll get in touch with someone like Megumi with Experience Columbus, who will be more than happy to tell you where the locals love to go; or, in this case, where all the MLS Cup excitement is happening. My first night in the city was spent driving from venue to venue while Megumi emailed me addresses. At one point, I was on my way to the center of downtown where a large graphic had been placed on a skywalk when she sent an email saying, “You should head over to this brewery: tons of Crew SC fans … Also, they’re doing a live podcast recording tonight.”
The “they” she was referring to was Massive Report, a local SB Nation blog dedicated to Crew SC. I quickly tapped the new address on my phone, changed my route, and headed there. When I arrived, I saw a small sticker, just above the handle on the front door of the brewery, which read, “Proud Partner,” and was adorned with Columbus’ new logo. It was a bit unnecessary, though. The black and gold jerseys that filled the bar could be seen from a block away in the massive front windows.
Since it was Saturday, college football was on every television. If you know anything about Columbusites, you know they love their Ohio State Buckeyes. While the Buckeyes weren’t playing, a crucial game that could decide their fate was on. But the bar patrons weren’t concerned with the TVs. They were watching the long table where the members of Massive Report were huddled around microphones recording their MLS Cup Eve podcast. I had my answer at that moment: This city was up for it.
The morning of the final began with even more black and gold. I watched one of the local news shows as I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. The anchors all wore Crew SC scarves, waived flags, and gave that evening’s weather report, specifically attuned to the 4 p.m. kickoff. Later that day, I hit a few more sites, like the Hilton downtown (which had been completely transformed into an MLS Cup hub) and a mall where I met the aforementioned kiosk worker and his simple, printed sign.
It would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Portland Timbers supporters as well. To just say they traveled en masse would completely miss the point. Portland sits around 2,500 miles away from Columbus by car, or about a five-hour plane ride. It’s not close. But the distance of almost the entire country didn’t stop supporters from coming to watch their team compete for their first MLS Cup. If Columbus was painted in black and gold on Sunday, it wasn’t without splotches green.
Perhaps the most impressive display was at the MAPFRE Stadium parking lot where a large truck outfitted with Portland’s logo sat among a sea of green fans. I’ve been to my fair share of games in Columbus, but I’ve never seen the supporters’ section filled up quite like that.
Portland fans were so numerous (and loud) that I could hear their specific chants from the press box, on the opposite side of the field, when a horrible gaffe from Crew keeper Steve Clark led to a goal just 27 seconds into the match. Six minutes later Portland scored again when Rodney Wallace found the back of the net off of a diving header.
And that’s when the wheels came off.
Granted, opposing teams coming to Columbus should know not to celebrate near the Nordecke, the hub of the rowdiest Crew supporters. But that doesn’t excuse what happened next. Those in the Nordecke began chucking cans of beer at the Portland players in such numbers that it seemed choreographed. It wasn’t of course. More likely, it was the result of raging emotions and a follower mentality. One person does it, then a second, then even more.
Let me pause for a moment to add in a disclaimer. I’m a fan of Columbus Crew SC. I have been since the club’s inception. I attended the first match ever played in MAPFRE Stadium (then known as Columbus Crew Stadium). I love the supporters in the Nordecke. Many MLS clubs have incredible groups of fans that create momentous atmosphere during matches, and those who stand in the Nordecke are among the best of them.
But I have to criticize them for this one. I don’t believe their actions represent Columbus Crew fans by a longshot, nor do they represent the average fan who has season tickets in the Nordecke. But in that instance, as full cans of beer were being hurled at Portland players, a critical mass was reached, on that seemed representative. Everything Columbus had built up for this match, all the signage, all the welcoming – it was unraveling. The wheels had come off, hurtling down the freeway, and it looked just like a beer can spiraling towards the away team.
I won’t mention much more of the match itself. There are plenty of other articles describing that. What I will mention is another brief moment after the match, while Don Garber, the commissioner of MLS, was thanking Columbus for being gracious hosts. Some scoffed when he thanked the Nordecke for its “incredible atmosphere.” The condescension no doubt came from the behavior early in the game, and it was hard to argue with them as a line of security guards had formed a fence with their bikes between the Nordecke and the field. I’ll concede that it’s probably the fan in me that allows me write this, but even at that point I didn’t completely condemn the section. I knew there were still plenty of people — an overwhelming majority, in fact — who had not participated in throwing cans. My emotions were mixed.
I gave a pro tip in the beginning of this article, and I’ll give another one here, this time to ESPN. If you don’t want to have middle fingers on your feed during a nationally televised event, don’t point your cameras at the losing team’s supporters’ section when someone is congratulating the winners. I’ve never seen a camera pan away that quickly.
As I drove home, still processing what I had experienced that weekend, I found myself desperately trying to figure out what I had learned, what I could take away. I think it’s this: When you’re driving 70 miles-per-hour down a highway and a wheel flies off your car, you can’t simply put it back on. The damage has been done. But maybe that doesn’t ruin the entire trip. It’s a setback for sure, but what if the rest of the trip was smooth, even great? What will you remember it for?
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