The “Miracle on Ice,” Michael Jordan’s flu game, Leicester City winning the English Premier League, Lebron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers and ending a 52-year championship drought. These are some of the all-time greatest sports stories. But another chapter was written in an ongoing story that, to those in Columbus, Ohio, is the greatest sports story in history.
On Sunday evening, the Crew won the Major League Soccer Eastern Conference title, defeating the New England Revolution 1-0 in a cold MAPFRE Stadium. This meant that the Black & Gold will host the MLS Cup Final for only the second time in the 21-year history of America’s first soccer specific stadium, a stadium that in less than a year, will be home to the team’s training facility as its new crowned jewel opens in the heart of Columbus.
That is a story on its own. That, in the last possible season for the Crew to be crowned MLS Cup champions at the old Columbus Crew Stadium, after fighting through injuries and a COVID-19 pandemic that change the season, the Black & Gold has a chance to win its second ever MLS Cup in its home stadium for the final time is a special story. But it’s just part of this week’s story.
That’s because just three short years ago, no one knew if the team would be in Columbus in 2020. Then-investor and operator Anthony Precourt announced his intentions to relocate MLS’s charter club to the city of Austin, Texas. That is until the fanbase rose up to fight and Save The Crew, allowing Sunday’s win and this week leading into the championship game to happen.
“It means everything,” Crew defender and Ohio native Josh Williams said after the Eastern Conference Final. “I can’t possibly express enough gratitude to those people who worked tirelessly... There’s thousands of people who literally worked their butts off to even have a chance to have this possibility.”
Williams was a part of the team in 2017. He lived through a season-plus of uncertainty and not knowing if his home state would keep its team, not knowing if he would move to Austin after the season. Williams showed support for what the fans were doing and celebrated with them when it was announced the team was saved.
Crew head coach Caleb Porter simply observed the Save The Crew movement from afar, but his ties to Ohio — attending Crew games when he was at college at Indiana, coaching at Akron — made him pay close attention. This led to him accepting the position of head coach for the Black & Gold, a club he valued because of the fans’ fight to save their team, prior to the 2019 season.
“I look for a story when I take on a job. I picked this job because I liked the story of the Columbus Crew.” Porter said on Sunday. “The tradition of Columbus Crew being the first club, the tradition of success; and I like the idea of reviving it, reinvigorating it, and obviously bringing a trophy to their fans.”
The coach understood the impact and wear the relocation saga had taken on the city and the Crew roster. He admitted it added to his motivation to come to Columbus and, as he put it, ”to reinvigorate the club that was obviously in a tough position for several years.”
Porter has had success in MAPFRE Stadium prior to becoming the Crew’s head coach. He won the 2015 MLS Cup with his former club, the Portland Timbers, in the stadium and a national championship there with the Hoosiers. Because of this, Porter doesn’t overlook the importance of this being the last MLS Cup Final hosted at MAPFRE Stadium.
“When I took this job, I had a bit of a dream to be in this position, to be playing an MLS Cup final again at MAPFRE, and to bring a trophy back to Columbus,” he said.
Williams, Porter and the rest of the Crew roster have an understanding of what the city of Columbus has been through, and what bringing an MLS Cup back to the city would mean, just over two years after the team was saved and the promise of a new beginning for the club began.
“I think now with a new stadium, and change of ownership, and all of that... there’s a tidal wave just building,” Williams said. “It just feels good, it feels good to be able to provide happiness again, because they deserve it. Those guys deserve it.”
Porter echoed Williams’ sentiments: “I look at it as an opportunity to rally a community, to bring joy to the people in the city. That’s what sports is about.”
And while COVID-19 will prevent MAPFRE Stadium from being filled with all of the fans who helped write this story, the head coach hopes the entire city can take part in this MLS Cup Final that it helped ensure will take place.
“It’s going to be a hell of a Final, and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Porter said. “And I hope we can get as many fans in there that’s safe as possible. And the ones that we can’t get in there, I hope every single person in Columbus is watching on TV.”