It was a gray and rainy Saturday afternoon at MAPFRE Stadium, where the notoriously fickle Ohio weather forced the 2015 edition of Columbus Crew SC Fest off the pitch and on to the lower concourse and stage.
But spirits were not dampened. It was, as in previous years, a fun time for Crew SC fans young and old, and seemingly for the players as well. A chance for fans to bump elbows with their favorite players, and for those players to interact with those fans in a state other than post match exhaustion.
The cramped space of the lower west side concourse and state area only increased the intimacy of the event from previous year's editions. Everywhere you turned there was a Crew SC player or coach, all seemingly enjoying themselves as much as the legion of fans. All the players were armed with sharpies, ready and willing to sign jersey's, balls, hats, shirts or whatever other various and sundry fans had ready for them.
But it was not just an extended autograph session. There was a large variety of fun and unique opportunities to interact with your favorite players. I myself got to call highlights of the LA and Philly games with Chad Barson, and turned down an offer of soccer tennis from Ben Speas, who was taking on all comers. Justin Meram was in the Crew SC themed photo-booth taking complimentary pictures with fans, while Tony Tchani, Kevan George, Aaron Schoenfeld, and Kalen Ryden were all in or around the mobile video game suite, playing young Black & Gold fans in FIFA 15 (at least I assume it was the most up to date year, I was unable to fact-check this).
All the stars, minus Kei Kamara (who was playing in the DeRo testimonial) were out, with Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain, Emanuel Pogatetz, and Michael Parkhurst on the stage, wading through a seemingly never-ending line of autograph seekers. Even young Ben Swanson was on hand, handling the occasion like a seasoned veteran.
The technical staff was out and about, as I was able to have good chats with both Pat Onstad and even head coach and technical director Gregg Berhalter. 3G in particular seemed to enjoy himself, a far cry from his typical hyper-focused and more than slightly intimidating sideline demeanor.
The crowd was primarily families and children, less of the Nordecke types, as I expected it would be. I saw plenty of youth soccer jersey's, including Crew Jr's and the SP Soccer academy. It's easy, sometimes, for us as 'hardcore fans' to sneer at the younger set at MAPFRE Stadium, with all the commotion and distraction they sometimes bring, but events like this really hammer home how this team belongs to them too, not just the Supporters Groups. There events, where young kids are able to interact with their heroes, are part of what makes the Columbus Crew SC unique. I overheard one of the players, I believe either Steve Clarke or Brad Stuver, asking a group of young fans if they wanted to sit in the Nordecke one day.
It's things like that which bring the next generation of fans through, and will ensure that the North-East corner of the 'Fre will never go empty.
It's also worth noting that despite some of the controversies of this season, such as the recent hubbub over the change in next year's primary kit or Pogatetz's Facebook post about playing time, there was literally no sign of any drama amongst the crowd. "No one hates us like we hate us" is a popular refrain amongst Crew SC faithful, but there was no hate (due or undue) on that lower concourse today. No whisperings of discontent, no murmurs of fear of the team losing its identity or moving, and the only conspiracy theory came from me, upon seeing SC instead of Crew Cat (never forget!).
All in all, despite the rain, it was still a worthwhile trip to MAPFRE Stadium, as it always is.
Days like this are why I'm proud to be a Crew SC supporter. I'm proud to support a club that is open to the crazies of the Nordecke (as I wrote about this past week) as well as to families with small children and local soccer teams. Columbus Crew SC belong to Columbus, and on a wet and rainy Saturday, there was nowhere better to be than MAPFRE Stadium.