With the recent slide down the table, and the club facing the Eastern Conference leading Red Bulls, I wondered if the match I was about to witness would be the Beautiful Game, or more of the same. The odds were not good for the hometown team to come out on top this evening.
But, as I was standing in the concrete jungle before the match, a beautiful sound assailed my aural synapses. What could this be? How to describe a sound that brings a smile to one's face? Why yes, it's the "Mother Tongue" from across the pond. A tall and wiry cool drink of water, in the form of a lanky Englishman, had invaded our shores. The man was living on little sleep and pints of beer as he made ready to bring his own form of insanity to the Nordecke.
Yes, before my very eyes, there stood Daniel Bidmead. What could possibly drive a man to make the heinous trek from the Commonwealth to Columbus, Ohio? In a word... Football. He had come to see his beloved Crew take on the Red Bulls of New York. For four years he has been writing about, and supporting, the Black and Gold from "over there". I needed to hear the language spoken properly and Daniel didn't disappoint.
Although the Crew have been going through a rough spate of games, to put it mildly, his support never wavered. "The way they've been declining is a worry," he said. "It has been a tough. Recently, the whole light at the end of the tunnel is the new owner (Anthony Precourt). That's what has made things a little bit more exciting."
"I love the support that they've got over here. I love the team and the people around the team. I just love the game. I think there's promise in the future. He (Precourt) wants a winning team. I think he wants to make a name for himself in the MLS. And, doing that through the Columbus Crew is only going to be a good thing for us, the supporters."
I thrust another pint into his outstretched claw as he chided me for mangling a Winston Churchill quote. What can I say? I'm a stranger in a strange land. He then proceeded to make the case for why relegation is good for the sport. "I think the way the League (MLS) is growing and expanding," he said, "I can't see it happening now, not at all. I like the battle of promotion/relegation. It makes football more exciting when you're clinging on."
"Can you imagine how teams like Toronto would be feeling if there was relegation? It wouldn't just be the same situation. You couldn't just be Chivas, my God! You can't have teams that are playing that badly, that regularly. When you have relegation, you have to change things about. I think that relegation helps football, in the sense that it makes you fight harder for your place in the table. You don't just dwindle being crap for the rest of the year."
Lo and behold, an Englishman was making sense in the Colonies. He was in full-on Gonzo mode at this point. My head would soon explode from the irony of this chap making these salient points. Why must MLS be like the other major league sports in America? Don Garber has stated that he wants to see MLS be looked at as an equal to the other top leagues throughout the world. A promotion/relegation system would help achieve that. "I'd like to see little teams make it through," said Bidmead.
We finished our conversation with a look ahead for what lays in store for the Black and Gold. "I think, with the new leadership coming in," he said, "it's fairly obvious that this season is a write-off. I think people are finally coming to terms with that and looking to next season. Everyone is expecting to lose tonight, because New York is on a good run and we're on a shocking run. I think it would appease a lot of people (sacking the head coach), but I don't think it would change anything for the rest of the season. I think it's kind of grin and bear it till the end of the season."
"It's the off-season where the changes are going to take place. It's fairly certain that Warzycha is going to go. There's no point in doing that now, because it won't change anything. Precourt has already said that he's watching and learning and he'll make changes going into next year."
Fortified with beer and the conviction of a long distance supporter, I set off on my merry way towards the stadium. As I settled in to observe the first half, the thought kept circulating through my cerebral cortex that the team was beginning to gel. There is no other way to describe it. The passing was crisper and more on-target. The interplay between the players on the pitch was what many had hoped to see from the start of the season. Better late than never, eh?
There was something that I couldn't quite put my finger on. And then, it hit me. They were playing with pride and purpose. "It's a new team," said Agustin Viana. "We have young people and we've also had a lot of injuries during the season. Our problem is that we've not been regular. Everyone must show what they can do (for the remainder of the season)."
"We must be happy and celebrate when we win. But, we must work much, much more. We must believe that we are a good team. Each practice, each game, every player... you must play with prestige. You must show who you are. That is important. No, I do not believe that we are playing for nothing. Every day you play for something. This is your prestige. I think that is the most important. If we understand that, I think that we start winning more games."
As the second half began, the score was still knotted at 0-0. As the Crew gelled even more, the one known as "Pipa" got the Black and Gold on the score sheet first by converting a penalty kick at 62'. Higuain would get the brace just fourteen minutes later, after receiving a wonderful pass from Will Trapp. He dodged two defenders and saw that New York goalkeeper Luis Robles was cheating off his line and deftly chipped the ball over his head and into the upper corner. It was a thing of beauty.
Crew head coach Robert Warzycha wasn't so sure about the chip, but was happy with the outcome. "To be honest with you," he said, "when he took that shot, I was like oh, don't do it. Then I looked at the goalkeeper and he was a good seven or eight yards in front of the line and I was like if you're going to do it, do it right now. Probably he had this in mind way before I looked at the goal."
The game settled in, yet the Crew never seemed to sit back on the lead as they have done in the past. That's the way would end, with Columbus winning 2-0 at home in front of 19,080 supporters who were very loud on a beautiful evening.
With goalkeeper Matt Lampson stepping in for the injured Hebrew Hammer, he wasn't tested all that much. But when he was, he was confident and preserved the clean sheet. Of course, he compared my Hawaiian shirt to something akin to what his father would wear. I stated that his father must have good taste. The smile and laughter from Lampson was genuine.
"You've got to be tuned in for ninety minutes," Lampson said. "I pride myself on being mentally tough for a whole game. My back four in front of me did an incredible job of keeping me positive. They really helped to keep me tuned in for the whole game. I wasn't tested because every single player in front of me played their hearts out. It was probably the best performance that we've had all year."
At this point, Andy Gruenebaum bombed our conversation. Lampson proceeded to have more and more difficulty finishing a complete thought with Gruenebaum mercilessly yanking his chain. So, at this point, I decided to get the Hammer involved directly by asking if he had any words of advice for his young understudy. Lampson immediately laughed and said he had the perfect answer for this. Gruenebaum, to his credit, goaded Lampson on.
Lampson said, "Every single game that I play in, Andy tells me, deadpan, straight to my face..." Wherein Gruenebaum cut in with "this is a true story", before Lampson continued. "Whatever happens out there, just remember that you have the biggest (expletive deleted) on the field." The seriousness and reverence with which this statement was delivered was high comedy indeed. Gruenebaum, "it goes to your inner confidence. That's what it's about." Lampson chimed in, "I just look at him (Gruenebaum) and say you're right. That's what fuels the fire." With that, none of could keep a straight face and the laughter ensued.
While this was a good win for the club, they know that they must string together multiple wins and play every game the way that they played versus the Red Bulls on Saturday night. As Viana said, they all must look within themselves and play with personal prestige and pride. Only then, will they gain the consistency that they want. Was this win a case of trying to impress the new boss, Anthony Precourt? Possibly. From what I saw, they were playing for themselves and the supporters to come out to see them each and every week.
From the fan who lives four blocks away to Daniel Bidmead, who traveled over the ocean to see his beloved Black and Gold, they want their team to relearn and begin to live again the motto of being "America's Hardest Working Team". That, in a nutshell, is pride.