It's fair to say that in Columbus soccer has always had to fight for its respect, to win over the hearts and minds of local sports fans, and to gain the attention it deserves. The reasons are well documented, debated, and beaten in to the ground. This time last year, for the first time in a long time, if not ever, soccer seemed to be gaining ground.
On the heels of a surprise playoff appearance in 2014 the Columbus Crew launched a highly lauded (at least at the time) rebranding effort, unveiling a new crest, and officially changing the team name to Columbus Crew SC. Sleek new black jerseys were the talk of the town, and Precourt Sports Ventures succeeded where Hunt Sports Group failed, finally landing a stadium sponsor for Crew Stadium, redubbing it MAPFRE Stadium. It appeared 2015 was shaping up to be a good year, but few could predict just how good.
The team had its ups and downs, as any team in such a parity-driven league would, but they peaked at the right time, stormed in to the playoffs, and ended up hosting MLS Cup. I wrote a little at the time on how soccer was sweeping Columbus in a way I hadn't seen before, entering areas of town not traditionally thought of as soccer hotbeds, and garnering significant public interest from "non-soccer" Columbus sports fans. People were talking about soccer in a way they hadn't before.
MLS Cup was a disappointment, but ownership, the team, and fans alike were all confident of building on 2015's success both on and off the field. However, it turned out not to be.
Before the season began the team unveiled their much-hyped 'For Columbus' kits, looking to capitalize on their surging civic support. With the season's advertising slogan of "Club and City together as one" plastered all over town, the team debuted new jersey's, inspired by the City of Columbus flag. To say reaction to the kits was mixed would be an understatement. Some were upset by the perceived break with tradition of yellow primary jerseys. Others were more concerned with the aesthetics. Whatever the reasons, it's more than fair to classify the For Columbus kits as a misstep, especially in light of what would come.
The season started off in disappointing fashion. The team struggled out of the gate, but most fans and commentators alike chalked it up to post-Cup hangover. But the performances failed to improve, and results were hard to come by. The team failed to win in the For Columbus kits for most of the season, and the team's struggles on the field were blamed, at first facetiously, on the much maligned uniforms. Controversy struck on the field as well, with Kei Kamara and Federico Higuian having an on-field spat about a penalty kick. Fan-favorite Kamara was gone from Columbus shortly thereafter, a move that alienated some supporters, but also impacted more casual or occasional fans. Losing a star striker, especially while a team is struggling, is rarely a good look.
While the MLS Cup run saw an uptick in local TV coverage, this seasons struggles undid much of it, with most of the relatively sparse coverage focusing on the teams losing record, the Kamara situation, and (at times) the sub-par attendance. The team's reported attendance numbers broke records, but enthusiasm around town also waned noticeably. Jerseys were less visible around town, there was less "buzz" amongst the more casual supporters. As the season ground on to its inevitable conclusion interest seemed to dwindle amongst all but the already fanatical.
So where does owner Anthony Precout and company go from here? How do they reclaim that buzz they had worked so hard to build? Winning is obviously the easy answer, but that will have to wait until next year. Offseason signings are a possibility, but it would take a fairly large name to really move the needle in Columbus, and it remains to be seen if Crew SC has the kind of appeal to land a real "big fish" in the transfer market. Another avenue to increase conversation around the team presented itself shortly after the end of the year. A survey went out, unannounced, to Crew SC fans asking their thoughts on a possible future, downtown stadium. This has been a hot topic amongst supporters for years, and its timing was likely no coincidence.
Anthony Precourt assured supporters on Twitter that the team would "assess, regroup, and reload" during the off-season. On field glory is obviously the goal, but it remains to be seen how they will approach reclaiming the momentum off the field the team lost with its dreadful 2016.