"What the hell is this?" Chris asked me, looking around the jam packed bar, half confused, half in legitimate wonder. Between the official Columbus Crew SC watch party, it being the opening match of the season, and the re-launch of the official supporter's beer Glory, Land Grant Brewery was packed. I'd seen it busy before, our pre-MLS Cup podcast was very well attended, but this outdid that night, and it wasn't even close.
"When did we become the cool kids?"
All I could do was look around the room and shrug. I hadn't been expecting this, either. It was still over 45 minutes until kickoff and room to stand was going at a premium. By the time the match kicked off there was hardly space to move. A head count was impossible, but I wouldn't be shocked if it was pushing 300 people in the taproom. I offered to budge over, so Chris could stand. He declined.
"I'm just going to grab a six pack and beat it," he told me, making his way to the bar, which at this point was only two or three people deep. By five minutes before kickoff, prime beverage buying time, I counted a sea of humanity five people in depth around the length of the bar.
As he wandered away, I scanned the masses gathering, taking the temperature of the room. I saw some of the guys from Murderer's Row. I saw Frankie Hejduk. His entrance, as one would expect, was greeted with a loud roar of applause. A few minutes later Chris returned to say goodbye before hitting the road. He wished me luck with my article, and as he was leaving he took one last look around and said, smiling: "We've come a long way."
He would know. Chris was an old hand, among the first people to befriend me when I started writing for this very website last year. He was a vet. He'd been involved with supporters groups for a long time. He's told me, before, of the old days, the bad days (or maybe the best days, depending on who you ask). The days of watching Crew SC away matches in the basement of Ruby Tuesday's, on ONN, barely able to make out which blobs were which. He was there before the various supporters groups combined to form the Nordecke, before OSU promotions, before "For Columbus" was anything but a rallying cry from the fans.
His comment made me stop, and take in the moment. The mood in the bar was upbeat, positive, maybe even hopeful. Any lingering ghosts of the MLS Cup Final loss were failing to dampen the enthusiasm of the assembled (and growing) mass of supporters as Frankie led a rousing chorus of "Glory to Columbus". Every fan I talked to predicted a Crew SC win, save one, who predicted a draw. There was no doom and gloom, no self loathing, no real worry. People were happy. Even as kickoff approached, a time when I myself fall victim to anxiousness and nerves before just about every match, there was a surprising lack of tension in the air. Glasses were raised. The opening whistle blew, though I don't think anyone could hear it, and suddenly, Crewsgiving had begun.
The crowd was, as you'd expect, heavily invested in to the match from the opening whistle. Every call (or non-call) was met with cheers or jeers, a few choice words, and even a chorus of boo's on occasion. This was not a few Crew SC fans invading a random bar to watch the match, these were soccer people. The energy of the room rose when the Black & Gold were on the attack. Every missed chance was met with groans, but spirits were still high. The buzz had not abated.
Then the match turned. It was a bad foul to give away, but a simple, maybe even innocuous free kick to defend. No one around me seemed worried. I had my doubts. Sometimes I'm right. Some of the wind went out of the sails of the gathered masses, then. There was tangible frustration. Those December ghosts started to float through the room. Tension began to rise. As the first half wore on, the spirit of the room sagged, discouraged by the team's lackluster response to falling a goal behind. It was a very different feeling in the air when the final whistle of the first half blew. The optimism wasn't quite gone, but it was muted.
Enter Frankie Hejduk. I emerged from the bathroom to see him standing on one of the long picnic like tables in the center of the taproom, flanked by two or three fans on each side, singing "Glory to Columbus." They were being filmed by someone, either the Time Warner Cable Sports Network or the local CW Affiliate, both of whom were there, probably for a bumper or ad of some kind. But it didn't matter. That song got the room buzzing again. Spirits were lifted. I'm not saying Frankie is magic, but he has that ability to get people going, no matter the circumstances. His powers were in full effect Sunday in Franklinton. By the time the second half began, the taproom was energetic again, still singing, chanting, and (of course) drinking.
The second half began with more fire from Crew SC. The bar felt it. Kei missed. The bar felt it. Enthusiasm grew, not waned.
Then it happened.
I've seen a lot of Crew goals in a lot of different environments. Pipa's bicycle kick is one I won't soon forget, if I ever do. The bar seemed to rise to their feet as one during the buildup, at least those not already standing. When the ball hit the back of the net the entire room erupted. I wouldn't be surprised if the entire neighborhood heard. Strangers were high-fiving each other, I saw more than a few hugs. Songs were sung. I stood on the bench of the table and looked around the room, the celebrations still going on even though the match had restarted, and realized Chris was right. We've come a long way. And what's more, this wasn't a normal watch party. It was a happening. The feeling I had at that moment, surrounded by strangers in black and gold all celebrating the same thing I was celebrating, reminded me of the MEGATAILGATE before that ill-fated day in December, the sheer excitement and joy. Perhaps that was a sign...
By now you know how this story ends. Crew SC, spurred on by their goal, pushed for a second. The Timbers, reeling slightly, tried to right the ship. Columbus get unbalanced, Timbers hit on the break. Clark can't hold the ball. Goal. You could almost hear the bar deflate. You could feel it. The gut punch was expected, but that didn't make it hurt any less.
Disappointment gave way to frustration as the clock ran down. The Black & Gold couldn't find another leveler. By the time the final whistle blew, the room was a far cry from the frenzy Frankie had whipped it in to before the start of the second half. Old habits were back, as I heard three or four different players blamed for the loss. To some, the sky seemed to be falling. To me, it didn't really matter. We had experienced something special. A moment not soon forgotten, a night not likely to be replicated.
Which left me with a bit of a problem. This article was intended to be the first in a series, documenting what it's like to watch an away match at various bars around Columbus (and possibly beyond). But Sunday, it turned out, was hardly a normal night.
The beer is the main attraction and it's good. They have a wide selection of styles, and Glory, the official supporters beer, is an obvious favorite. They're also known for their IPA's, which you can find in cans across town. My personal favorite, however, may be The Goon, their Strong Pale Ale.
The long picnic like tables encourage community style seating rather than individual tables, which is perfect when your among your Black & Gold friends. The TVs that line both the front and back walls all have good sight-lines, and there's even a private room off to the side.
The people are all friendly, and the owner Adam is a big Crew fan. He was milling about, working, while wearing his Crew SC jersey Sunday. I've had many great conversations from staff and patrons any time I've been there.
Land Grant has jumped on the food truck movement. Your mileage may vary, but I quite enjoyed my pizza on Sunday. There's often food, but I recommend calling to find out what truck will be there and planning accordingly.
The only downside to Land Grant is the parking situation. Their lot is small, and often the food truck takes up a fair bit of that. There is parking on side streets, but it can be a pain at times, and Franklinton, for all its efforts, still isn't the best part of town to be parking on a side street.
Parking considerations aside, Land Grant is a phenomenal place to watch a match. You should go, and of course tell them your good friends at the Massive Report sent you.
So, Crew SC fans, what are some of your favorite spots to watch matches here in town? Or even beyond? Throughout this season I'll be hitting many of the popular spots in Columbus and filing reports from the festivities there. Leave your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.
Stay Massive, and enjoy Crewsmas.