A rival or not a rival, that is the question. Rivalries in Major League Soccer are strange things. Some happen naturally and others are forced on teams by MLS.
On Sunday, the Columbus Crew will play in what could be a rivalry game against expansion side Austin FC. These teams have been designated as potential rivals by MLS — the game is one of two for the Crew against Western Conference opposition and is on national television — after former Black & Gold investor-operator Anthony Precourt attempted to move the Columbus franchise to Austin and is still involved in Texas’ newest MLS team.
All’s well that ends well... or does it? Some Black & Gold fans still hold animosity toward this new Austin side while others don’t seem to care too much. Massive Report decided to try and decide whether the Crew and Austin are rivals or not by asking two of our more opinionated writers to argue it out.
Patrick Murphy: Alright, Thomas. We’ve had conversations prior to this and you are on the side that Austin is a rival for the Crew. I believe this won’t be much of a rivalry, especially after the first meeting or two. I’ll let you have the floor first to give your opening argument on why this game should be considered Part 1 of a budding rivalry.
Thomas Costello: Before we get too deep into the nuance that is the Crew and Austin rivalry, I have to share my mindset regarding how I approach it. There are many logical arguments on why Austin is a Crew rival, but know that when I replace the “sportswriter” cap for the “sports fan” cap, logic flies out the window. The beautiful thing about being a sports fan is that it’s an avenue where logic really doesn’t have to apply. That’s important to share because I may say things that make me sound like a horrible person, but know it’s sports fandom talking. With that being said, I honestly don’t see how Austin isn’t a rival.
Does anyone remember what Anthony Precourt did in 2017? The whole “take the team from the city” thing? That alone is enough to create rivalry status. As a more senior member of Massive Report, in age only, I had Art Modell take away a love of mine at 10 years old when he moved the NFL’s Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. I still hold resentment to this day. There’s been a lot more than one or two games since 1999 between the Browns and Baltimore Ravens too.
Are we just supposed to forget what happened and bottle those feelings deep down inside? I’m obviously not a doctor, but that feels like an unhealthy self-care practice.
Patrick: First, I think we’re going to have to do some fact checking on you being one of the older Massive Report staff members. We’ve got some vets on staff.
As for the “rivalry,” you started right where I think most people would and should start when making your argument: Anthony Precourt. Crew fans have every right to detest the man that tried to take their team away from them, and did so in a sneaky, backdoor way.
Here’s the problem, as I see it. Not liking a team (be it because of their owner or a player or whatever) is different than a rivalry. A rivalry is about history, it’s about geography. It shouldn’t be built — again, in my opinion — on one event, but a collection of events that leads to hatred on both sides.
You used the example of the Browns and Ravens, which is fair. The difference is, the Browns and Ravens play each other twice a season. Even before the new Browns took the field for the first time, fans knew they would see the Ravens regularly. If Columbus and Austin were going to play even twice a year, then maybe I could get on board. The fact that there will be seasons where they don’t play at all makes it tough for me to see there being much venom beyond this first game.
Thomas: I can think of possibly two people older than me on staff, but let’s stay on point, Murphy.
The fact that Columbus plays Austin less than twice a year makes it even more of a rivalry. There’ll likely be just one, or once every two years, where there’s one chance to get the better of the other team. It’ll feel even better, or hurt even worse, knowing that supporters can rub a victory in the face of opposing supporters for a year or longer.
On the idea of the definition of a rivalry, geography and competition are the standard, Webster-esque, definitions, but it’s not all inclusive. MLS has done its best at trying to create rivalries, like Columbus and Toronto’s “Trillium Cup.” A rivalry on a shared flower is as effective as it sounds. Cincinnati FC is far and away Columbus’ rival, but Austin should be the second.
For a year, other supporters used “Austin, Texas” as a chant against the Crew, and not just from away supporters’ sections like from New York City FC supporters on fullback Harrison Afful’s big playoff night on Halloween 2017. On November 29, 2017, Toronto FC supporters across the stadium chanted it towards Columbus, and I know it because I was there. The potential move was shoved in the faces of Crew supporters by the loudest in each fanbase. It all helped build the rivalry we’re about to see turn a new chapter into on-field play.
This failed business move by Precourt and MLS created one of the most genuine rivalries in the league. Look no further than head coach Caleb Porter.
“We’re not idiots,” said Porter about ignoring the rivalry. “We know this is a game that our fans want to win. We know the supporters have it circled and I had it circled twice because of that.” So, Murphy, are you going to tell Porter he’s wrong?
Patrick: You left out the part of Porter’s quote where he discussed not making any game bigger than another and that this game is about three points. And “I know it because I was there,” to quote you.
So by your standards, you’re letting other fans chanting about potential relocation dictate a rivalry? Or MLS to determine that the Crew and Toronto are rivals — they aren’t — above actual rivals like the Chicago Fire and D.C. United? C’mon. Be better.
A rivalry requires both teams to dislike each other. What is Austin’s reason for disliking the Crew heading into this weekend other than a few people on Twitter? If you ask most Austin fans who their team’s rival is, some may say FC Dallas, some may say the Houston Dynamo, some may say they don’t have one yet because they’ve only played nine games. There will only be a few — and those are probably the ones Crew fans got in arguments with on Twitter back in 2017 — that would have anything against Columbus.
If you want to hold Anthony Precourt’s decision to attempt to relocate the game — and fail — against an entire club, which features multiple MLS Cup winners from the Black & Gold, so be it, but it seems you could spit your venom at teams you know the Crew will play every year instead of one that the team may not see for multiple seasons after Sunday.
Thomas: Chicago and D.C. United rivalries are great, and stretch back all the way to the beginning of the league, for which all three teams earn my respect. Both of those rivalries were birthed out of necessity. You’re bound to have memorable matches against teams that you play four times a season.
I’m not asking you, or any other Crew supporter, to get rid of past rivalries. I’m not telling anyone to do anything. I’m simply hoping that the needle on the definition of a rivalry can be pushed to include other areas that supporters with different views care about.
Other supporters chanting is a piece of a larger rivalry puzzle, not a deciding factor. It was one example of many. Examples like secret undercover “scouting” trips by Austin supporters, countless debates across the World Wide Web and, oh yeah, the entire attempted tanking of a franchise.
Rivalries make sports fun. Open your heart to fun, Murphy. Also, you have no idea how much venom I have to give.
Patrick: While I’ve made a number of Crew fans upset with my suggestion that they stop booing Michael Bradley when he comes to Columbus, I will use similar logic with Austin to close this out. If you — Crew fans, not Thomas specifically — want to continue to hate Anthony Precourt for trying to move the team, so be it. I think that makes a lot of sense. But hating an entire team, city, coaches, players — some of which have very special memories wearing black and gold — and fans because of it when there is no on-field history yet and will be very little in the coming years seems like a waste of time to me.
As you finished with Thomas, “open your heart to fun.” These games should be fun. Traveling to road games as some supporters did for this contest should be fun. It shouldn’t be all about hate and anger. There’s not enough time in the day.
To close, I think Thomas has made plenty of good points and I’m sure there is a part of the Crew fanbase that will agree with him on this discussion. I know there are others who aren’t even acknowledging this game is more than a Sunday road MLS match on national television. Clearly, MLS is leaning into the rivalry angle by making this one of Columbus’ two games against a Western Conference opponent this year — the other being an MLS Cup rematch against the Seattle Sounders — so there’s that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this isn’t an every-year contest in the future.
What will be most interesting is what happens on the field on Sunday at Q2 Stadium. Does this match have the intensity of two teams that already don’t like each other? Does either manager pull something different, or do they get in a war of words at some point on the sideline during the game? Are there harder-than-normal challenges or over-the-top goal celebrations?
I think that is what could start to form a rivalry and tell us how both sides really feel.
Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. Is the Crew vs. Austin FC a rivalry in your mind?