"Home" is a lot of things to a lot of different people; Where you are living, where you come from, where your family is. I'm lucky enough to have grown up in Columbus. It is, and has always been my home. It very well may always be home. My family is here. My friends are here. My soccer club is here. But many aren't so lucky. As we grow older many of us scatter, leaving behind our various cities where we grew up for new homes. Most of us carry our Clubs with us, never trading allegiances from where we came from to where we landed. But many don't come from cities with MLS clubs, so they lack that association, that connection with the local team. Sometimes they find that connection where they land. That's what happened with Neil.
I met Neil at this year's home opener. We were sitting next to him and his wife. We had won the tickets through my girlfriend's work, and Neil had won his through that as well. They didn't know each other, but I, being a social butterfly, struck up a conversation. Neil wasn't from here. He hails from Detroit. He never had summer nights at Crew (now MAPFRE) Stadium, no trips to Crewfest, so how did he end up a Crew fan? I thought it would make an interesting article, and he agreed, so I sent him some preliminary questions.
Like many, his first introduction to soccer was through a video game, in this case FIFA for the Sega Genesis, "right around the US Word Cup". Despite the start of MLS, it was "easy enough to ignore" the fledgling league, due to no team being near him in Detroit. As he got older he had what he described as a "tangential" type of relationship with the game, due to friends being in to it, and seeing their posts on social media. I asked did the Crew register on his radar at all, either in his youth or his "pre-soccer" adult years?
"I just remember wondering why they put a team in Columbus, not more well known cities like Cincy or Cleveland."
So when did soccer finally start to interest him?
"The real start of my excitement toward Soccer all started to change with the 2010 World Cup. I must have watched that Donovan goal like 50 times on YouTube. Sadly at the time still being in Michigan, there were no real local soccer teams for me to support, so soccer fell off my radar for a while. Later a friend of mine became a hardcore (Tottenham) Hotspur fan and was consistently posting about it on Facebook. This would have been around 2013, this was also about the time NBC Sports picked up the EPL. Thus my introduction to the beautiful game began. The NBC Sports aspect really can't be stressed enough. Instead of seeing great players play top quality soccer every four years, I could see it every week."
He was hooked by the Premier League, its history and nuance, as well as its dynamic, exciting play. He became a Spurs fan himself. But how, I asked, did he make the jump from the Premiere League to MLS? The answer was relocation.
"It was around this time I moved to Columbus, and being from Michigan I have a large number of sports allegiances that are never going to change. But again as there were no MLS team's I could wholeheartedly adopt the Crew as my own. This move to Columbus and the excitement of the Rio World Cup really set the stage for my Soccer fandom."
He spent most of the 2014 season watching matches on TV, following the results, but didn't ever make it out to the stadium. What was the catalyst for him finally making the jump?
"2015 rolls around and there is a brand new logo, and it would seem a new identity. The Crew sponsored a 5K glow run that was set to finish in the Stadium. Sadly a storm prevented the run, but we did get tickets to the Crew vs. Montreal. My whole family was there (wife and daughter) in 202, which being right above the Nordecke is the single best way to get introduced to Crew Fandom. The chants, the pageantry, streamers for goals, Clark's YES YES YES at the end of a win."
I find a couple of things interesting here. Firstly, despite Neil's growing interest in the team, it took a "non-soccer" event to finally get him over the hump. Sometimes we, as "hardcore fans" scoff at some of the things that our stadium hosts, looking at them as "cash cows" or silly promotions, or something similar, but I think Neil's story is a testament that sometimes these events can actually be a great introduction to the team and game we love.
Secondly, I find it interesting, but not surprising, that what Neil remembers most from his first time isn't the actual soccer, but the "pageantry" of the occasion. I've long thought that the atmosphere at MAPFRE Stadium is one of, if not the biggest tool we, as fans, have to "convert" (for lack of a better term) our friends and family in to our midst as soccer fanatics.
Non-soccer fans won't be wowed by great play on the field (on the occasions it shows up, which sad to say, isn't always), but the energy in the stadium is hard to deny. It's infections. How did it compare to other sporting events, for a relatively new soccer fan?
"I enjoy a live Crew game more than any other sporting event I have been to. It probably helps that my daughter loves going to MAPFRE, and cheering, singing songs and everything else that being a Crew Supporter entails. She's ten, and made three games last year. She gets most excited when Kei is heading in an Ethan cross or Steve is saving a goal."
After following the ups and downs of last years season, all the way to the heart-wrenching conclusion, Neil now describes himself as "a Crew fan for life". He's since met Frankie, Kei, Wil, and Parkhurst at various events, saying "I think it's great how often you see them out in the community."
So at last we came back around to the question that I originally had, the one that started this whole conversation. What's it like being, for lack of a better term, a Columbus Transplant who has turned in to a Crew fan? Has it impacted how he feels about his new home? Has it changed how he thinks about or relates to the city?
"That is a fascinating thought. Having so many of my favorite teams defined at a young age to a specific area (Detroit/MI) and then moving into an area where they are the biggest rival (in the case of OSU) or so far apart in terms of success (CBJ vs The Red Wings) it does make me think of myself as a stranger in a strange land on Saturdays in the fall. More succinctly, I can cheer for the CBJ when they are playing anyone but the Wings, (but) I will never wear anything Scarlet and Gray."
"Having met Crew supporters in the real world and in/around MAPFRE, the sense of community is huge. Soccer in the US almost feels like that great indie band that only get airplay on a college rock station. If you don't know where to look you miss out on something magical."
"(All in all) I certainly feel that supporting the Crew it is something uniquely Columbus, and it probably has helped to make Central Ohio feel like home. I will say it is special to have an affinity for something that is unique to where you live."
I think that's something those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in this great city sometimes take for granted. It's easy to forget that not everyone has a "hometown club", that not everyone has the chance to head to the MEGATAILGATE and have beers with Frankie Hejduk. It's special, having something so many of us feel so passionately about, right here in our own backyard.
It speaks volumes, to me at least, that our club, no matter how "small market", can be such a force in the community that it can serve, to some degree, as an anchor for people who aren't from here. I'm not so sure every team in MLS can say the same.
If you have questions, comments, or a story of your own to share, leave them in the comments section below, or reach out over twitter to @MassiveReport or @krislandis, or shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading, and Stay Massive.