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Columbus Crew SC’s birthday brings to mind difficult comparisons

A search for relevance in a rapidly evolving soccer landscape

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It was Columbus Crew SC’s 23rd birthday on Thursday, an unhappy birthday after Wednesday evening’s U.S. Open Cup loss to FC Cincinnati. There is an anger borne out of a game where Columbus started a strong side, controlled the match and had the better opportunities, but still lost on a herculean individual effort by Djiby Fall and a stout defense.

But it’s an anger that also goes beyond performance on the field.

A similar loss to Miami FC or Sacramento Republic, both “Cupset” victors over MLS sides on Wednesday, would have shaken the fans, but the effects would have been more muted. Losing to the darling of USL, a new team in Crew SC’s back yard strikes a stark contrast between the two teams.

Crew SC was the first team in the newly formed Major League Soccer, announced on June 15th, 1994 after the organizers had collected over 12,000 ticket deposits. It was a number bold enough that the nascent league leadership couldn’t ignore. Columbus bought wholly into the idea of MLS.

Five years later, MAPFRE (née Crew) Stadium was built, another first on the American soccer landscape. The Crew was at the forefront of American soccer.

Now, 23 years after the birth of the Crew, it’s clear that the idea of success in the American soccer landscape has shifted. FC Cincinnati arrived out of the ashes of a half dozen abortive attempts to build a lasting soccer team in the city. This time, Cincinnati bought in. The team has set attendance records throughout it’s first year and a half of existence.

Much like the Crew, the record crowds showing up at Nippert Stadium has forced MLS to take notice and brought the new club to the forefront of the MLS expansion conversation.

Crew SC’s attempt at rebirth has run into hurdles. Anthony Precourt provided an injection of optimism as he took over the team in July 2013 after the moribund final years of Hunt Sports Group’s management. The new owner, very much an MLS 2.0 figure, has moved to reenergize the club.

Precourt pushed a rebrand of the club that improved an image that had gotten very stale. In the stands, attendances kept improving, climbing to the best of the decade 17,125 average last season. On the field, the team played an attractive style of soccer and made MLS Cup in 2015.

However, the past year has seen a couple major stumbles. The team crashed and posted one of the worst records in team history. Now, 2017 has been a very uneven affair as they have an uninspiring 7-8-1 record and have one of the ignominious losses in team history, losing to Toronto 5-0.

The attendance that had been climbing steadily dropped over 4,000 people, and is now currently the worst average in MLS.

The comparison to the rise of FCC is inevitable. Cincinnati has bought into soccer. A packed house of 30,000 plus fans took in a Wednesday Open Cup game. The team recently unveiled their new stadium plan with dazzling renderings that echo Munich’s Allianz Arena set in a dense city setting. It’s easy to imagine it as more vibrant the bare bones MAPFRE surrounded by parking lots.

As fans pack stadiums around the American soccer landscape coming to rising and established stars, certainly some Crew SC fans can see their team lacking relevance in a way that FC Cincinnati and newer soccer cities have right now.

Perhaps this Crew SC birthday will prove to be the lull before renewed growth. Precourt and the front office staff has made several long term efforts that should pay off. The team has put a lot of money into the Academy and there are signs of improvement as more players have been identified for youth national teams. Off the field, the team landed a major sponsor in Acura and is exploring their options in replacing MAPFRE Stadium with an eye on vibrant urban environment.

The success of Crew SC’s long-range plans are far from guaranteed. It’s harder and harder to win in MLS and perhaps just as hard to rebuild attendance after 20-plus years of familiarity. It’s easy to look south and see the distance that Crew SC have left to travel.