On Oct. 12, 2018, the effort to save the Columbus Crew was over. New investor operators in the Haslam and Edwards families swooped in to keep the Black & Gold in Columbus after 360 days of tireless work by Crew supporters, local businesses and Columbus politicians. It was a fight with the goal of saving the Crew, sure, but also saving a way that people in Columbus came together and celebrated their city.
While supporters reaped the fruits of new investment in the form of cheering on new players, supporting in a new downtown stadium in Lower.com Field and celebrating an MLS Cup victory, the fight didn’t end completely.
An element of the club’s attempted relocation was the end of Crew Juniors, a youth soccer organization run by the Black & Gold. Crew Juniors featured teams ranging from Under-6 to Under-18, built from tryouts with the eventual goal of identifying and fostering Crew Academy level talent who may one day suit up in Major League Soccer.
In that year of fending off relocation, hundreds of kids, parents and coaches lost their teams that were built on “committed to their long-term development through continuing education.” Once that avenue for long-term development ended, some parents scrambled to find new clubs for their young soccer players, while some left the game completely.
The Black & Gold are mending that relationship, but in a new form.
Return of a fan favorite
Youth soccer players aren’t wearing the Crew logo in competition, and the Crew isn’t competing with youth soccer clubs anymore. Instead, Columbus is doing all it can to strengthen the sport in Central Ohio. At the helm is a name familiar to the Black & Gold: two-time MLS All-Star and former Crew forward Dante Washington.
As of July 9, 2019, Washington goes under a different title as the Crew’s Director of Strategic Team Partnerships and Business Development. That’s when the new team investor-operators hired Washington to come in to not only leverage his knowledge of the game but his experience working in the business world. Washington is also quite familiar with Columbus.
Outside of playing for the Black & Gold, Washington lived and worked in Central Ohio, helping with Save the Crew. When the movement began and 2,000 supporters met on the steps of City Hall in October of 2017, Washington spoke to the crowd. When the Save the Crew group organized an alumni match on Aug. 31, 2019, Washington suited up.
When Washington moved from the ranks of player to local fan and then to the front office, it wasn’t about taking immediate action to fix the relationships within youth soccer in Columbus.
“Coming in, it was really just about listening again to the local soccer community,” Washington told Massive Report. “To understand what was going on, to kind of get a lay of the land, understand the landscape.”
Washington found that the youth soccer community in Columbus stayed the same when Crew Juniors left. It’s a unique environment where different clubs compete in the same game but have vastly different goals. It was evident that putting Columbus’ own youth soccer organization back into the dynamic didn’t make sense.
Like in the world of marketing, educating people takes time. Washington still talks with people that think the Crew Juniors exist and there’s still hurt from the previous ownership group, but that doesn’t hold him and his team back. The past is the past, and the focus is on the future of youth soccer in Columbus
The Crew‘s new relationship with local soccer
The Crew’s connection with local soccer features two main fronts: Academy Affiliates and the Crew Network. Each path provides teams with player and coaching resources to advance performance. The differentiating factor between the two is how close a player is to becoming a professional.
Academy Affiliates are for academy level athletes to develop on the professional pathway. They are affiliated with both the Crew and MLS. The Black & Gold currently has an affiliate with the Michigan Wolves Soccer Club.
The Crew Network features youth organizations throughout Central Ohio. Teams that include former Crew Junior players now receive many of the benefits from when they were part of the Black & Gold organization. The relationship within the network goes further than the Crew has ever gone before.
“We had a group of coaches in and, from what we understand, that was the first time in a long time, if ever, that a large group of coaches were able to come in and watch a training,” said Washington. “It was an Academy training and just the ability to come in, for us to open the doors to them, was something that’s new to many of these coaches.”
It’s new and not over. These meetings continue throughout 2022 and Washington and the Crew are planning regular coaching visits to training of Crew 2 and the first team. This unprecedented access to local youth organizations allows coaches and directors to learn from the professional ranks.
Columbus’ front office is going out to the clubs too, bringing what teams need. The Black & Gold leverage Washington and anyone else within the organization that can lend their expertise.
“If (youth coaches and directors) say, ‘Yeah, we would really love for you to have someone to talk to our parents about college recruitment,’ Robert [Spain] has coached at all three levels and in soccer in the United States,” said Washington. “If they wanted nutrition strength and conditioning, well we can go to our team here and leverage them too.”
Players receive professional-level instruction too. In February, Washington and the Crew held WinterFest, an event welcoming 500 kids to the temporary bubble at Historic Crew Stadium an opportunity to train, learn from Black & Gold coaches and prepare for the spring season.
There are more coming this summer too. Columbus currently has five camps scheduled for June and July. The Black & Gold have two sold out Crew Experience Camps where players learn stronger technical ability and continue a love for the game. All the participants also get a tour of the OhioHealth Performance Center, a voucher for a match ticket and get to meet players.
Between those two camps on the calendar are three additional camps, all held at Historic Crew Stadium. The intensity is higher at these, with players going beyond technical exercises and playing in games against each other. Camps aren’t a new thing for the Crew but holding the team’s first all-girls camp is new.
“We are absolutely supportive of the girl’s game and it’s not just because it’s the next thing to do or the trendy thing to do,” said Washington. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Washington isn’t giving lip service to the work in developing soccer across genders in Ohio. He has nine- and 11-year-old daughters who play club soccer. The Crew’s camp includes a mostly female staff of coaches and support. Beyond the camp, the Black & Gold want to leverage the staff they have in the performance center and the broadcasting booth to provide support.
Columbus commentator, and former professional soccer player, Jordan Angeli is one example of a resource for the women’s game in Central Ohio, and a contact Washington wants to use. The potential of having Angeli share her experience playing collegiately and professionally is an invaluable resource in growing the sport.
Working beyond pay-to-play
Something that Washington and other parents of youth soccer players know is the cost associated with playing competitive youth soccer in America. Working within clubs and camps reaches kids, but that’s a small number of the greater population. What about kids that don’t have the same opportunities?
Talking about the Black & Gold’s efforts in the community isn’t as easy of a discussion for Washington and it’s not because of a lack of initiatives. There’s a balance between working in the community and talking about helping the community with fears that it's only done to self-serve.
What does the Black & Gold do for kids and families not willing or able to shell out thousands of dollars per year to play the sport? It turns out there’s a lot, and it led to chances at the Academy level.
Since Washington took the role in 2019, the Crew’s worked with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, Hispanic Coalition, Boys and Girls Club and supported Linden McKinley High School’s soccer program.
Supporters have seen some of those initiatives, such as the team’s work with the Hispanic Coalition to create mini pitches coinciding with the 2021 Campeones Cup. Washington and his small team use the limited financial resources they have available to get the sport to areas where it’s either not as popular or there aren’t the available fields or resources.
While the COVID-19 pandemic did slow down some of the work with the Columbus Recs and Parks group and the Boys and Girls Club, the state has opened up over the past six months and those conversations are back on the table. It’s not only Washington doing it either, but the supporters themselves.
The Nordecke, the Columbus Crew’s supporters’ group, contacted Washington about how they can help. While no plans are official, there were discussions surrounding opening mini pitches and fields across the city for free soccer clinics in communities often ignored in the grand scheme of U.S. Soccer.
“There are things that are happening behind the scenes, and this is just one part of my overall job,” said Washington. “Just recently I was able to hire someone at the end of January to really kind of take the reins and run.”
All the work done by Washington and his growing team is great, but what are the results? How is success measured?
Business metrics-wise, an influx of new Crew supporters is the easiest way to financially judge if the work is successful. Growing the love of the game at the youth level and being part of that growth through coaching clinics, working alongside clubs and working in the community turns into the creation of lifelong fans.
It’s more than that though. It’s about growing Columbus’ footprint in the sport.
“I’ve said to the directors and the coaches over the years that we’re not fortunate enough to be a Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Dallas where we have the volumes and volumes of kids who are playing the game,” said Washington. “We need to all be kind of pushing together and working together for the greater good of growing the game in Columbus.”
Success is also seeing youth players go from a clinic to the team’s Academy, into Crew 2 and stepping onto the field as an MLS professional with the senior team. The Crew’s goal is to create more professionals like former captain and Gahanna-born Wil Trapp, Academy product Aidan Morris and Crew 2’s Abdi Mohamed.
It’s not a measurement of success that’s short term, but as Washington and the Crew continue the work they started in 2019, seeing more soccer on fields, mini pitches and names of Ohio cities on the Crew’s roster will let fans know it’s working.