I never would have imagined the 2015 season coming to an end the way it did, with all the hope and angst and astonishment and, well, not really heartbreak. It was more like slowly drifting away in an out-of-body experience as the season was lying dead on the table, the possibility of resuscitation always hanging over the moment but remaining unlikely.
I wouldn't call myself a pessimist, but I wouldn't be the first pessimist to say that. Cynicism is in my nature. So maybe I never totally bought into the idea that Columbus Crew SC was going to play for a championship until it actually happened. And then it was like finding out you won an all-expenses-paid trip to some exotic locale, but one of the plane's engines died while it was taxiing on the runway.
So, no, I couldn't bring myself at any point of the season to actually believe that 2015 would end with this team playing for — or winning — an MLS Cup. I hoped, and entered a passionate, beautiful relationship with that hope, but I learned a long time ago that hope is the most powerful weapon that human beings have, and it is too volatile to be trusted.
I never would have imagined my last glimpse of Crew SC — or MLS — soccer this year would occur sitting in a bar in Missouri, in a city I'd never been to a month prior, 500 miles away from MAPFRE stadium, a lone Columbus fan in his yellow Wil Trapp jersey, next to a lone Portland Timbers fan in his green jersey.
Just two of us sitting and staring up at a glowing television, talking occasionally but mostly sharing the same fear while sitting on opposite ends of the same see-saw of anticipation, one rising while the other one falls.
I never thought I'd walk away from the season shaking the hand of a Timbers fan I'd met moments earlier and telling him to enjoy it, because he might never experience it again.
Mostly, it's because we never think about these kind of things. There are only two types of thought — that of the wild dreamers and that of the anti-dreamers, who treat that sort of sort of masturbatory idealism as anathema — the kind that opens the door to bad karma and welcomes it in.
What we do not think about, ever, is the so-close-but-so-far-away moment. And that, I imagine, is why it is so difficult to digest MLS Cup with banana yellow-tinted glasses on. I did not prepare for this.
Let's face it, the 2015 season came to a close in the most 2015 Crew way it could. This was a team that was consistent in the sense that the train never came off the tracks this season, but it was never a bullet train either. It was more of an Amtrak line, making plenty of stops along the way.
Questionable decision-making and poise when faced with a high press? Oh, we've seen this story before. Steve Clark making brilliant saves but sometimes — just enough to know he had it in him — looking like a drunken ghost trying to settle the proverbial hot potato? Black & Gold fans love Clark, but go back to D.C. or Philadelphia, and we've seen this rodeo before. The occasional fumble and bumble.
When it wasn't Clark (and most of the time it wasn't), it was the defense. For the first seven months of the season the scouting report was the same — can this team avoid the one or two horrific defensive gaffes that will cost it the game? For seven months I'm not sure even a degenerate gambler would get in on that prop bet. But suddenly, in Month No. 8, it was like the problem disappeared. Here was Gaston Sauro. Here was team defense. Here were a few clean sheets. All hail the New Crew.
Now it looks like some sort of devilish dealing. Like for about six weeks — and they weren't a perfect six weeks by any means — all those mistakes got dammed up, pressing and banging against the wall but not escaping until, seconds into MLS Cup, the dam broke, and out rushed an unwelcome but familiar personality that gleefully flooded the field, joyously released from its shackles.
This wasn't Clark's fault. It wasn't the assistant referee's fault. No, Columbus was simply not the better team on this afternoon. Suddenly it was pre-Berhalter Tony Tchani. Suddenly Ethan Finlay was no longer the most underrated player in the league. Suddenly Harrison Afful was no longer the best right back in MLS. Suddenly Kei Kamara was not a wrecking ball. Suddenly a prolific attack could put just one shot on frame.
Suddenly the season was over. It would have been either way, but winning that final game has a way of making a season — and a team — live forever.
Instead I found myself looking for the emotional space where a dichotomy faces off, nose to nose — an exciting season of continued development and the non-performance of an exclamation point.
It was then I realized it wasn't that the loss was a gut shot; it was that there was nowhere to go from there. The moment will marinate for an entire offseason. There is always the possibility that Europe comes calling for virtually any of the Crew SC starting 11 (especially Kamara), but barring that this team will largely be the same in 2016. The season will start with emotions moving more toward expectation on the hope-to-expectation scale.
Like Kamara, I sat and watched Portland lift the trophy. Then I walked out into the cold and began imagining the possibilities ahead.