By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Oct 27, 2017) US Soccer Players – Every team is the protagonist in its own individual story. Usually those stories are about on-the-field exploits, like winning streaks or runs of bad form. Occasionally, off-the-field events can add to or change the direction of a team’s story. A soccer team doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all. Teams are subject to outside pressure, the consequences of being a business concern in a world where blurring the line between being a vessel for civic pride and a mechanism for profit is nothing new.
At some point, the story resolves into something approaching a narrative, a through line that comes to characterize a season or season. Soccer teams are built to play soccer games, and soccer games are generally the means to the end of crowning a champion, narratives can shift dramatically based on one game.
The through line can hold, but the tone and tenor twists and turns with the results.
For Atlanta United, the through line was simple one. The Five Stripes established themselves as the most successful expansion franchise in Major League Soccer history Already a big enough hit with fans in Atlanta that the club has set attendance records, United’s home playoff game against the Columbus Crew on Thursday pushed them further down the path to a standard that will have them ranking among the league’s elite after one campaign.
Simply by the resources that they have committed to the project in their first season, Atlanta United has changed the landscape of MLS. Arthur Blank’s arrival as a soccer benefactor in the South made that region a new hotbed and reestablished what was possible for a young league still clawing its way to respectability at home and abroad. Forgiving the bottom line of it all since Blank probably isn’t making money on this deal, MLS is better for having Atlanta in it.
Atlanta hit a wall on Thursday. A black and yellow wall, made up Gregg Berhalter’s Crew team. The through line on the Crew season, prior to last week, was one of steady play without the spectacular edge of a Toronto FC or NYCFC. No one denied that the Crew were solid and capable of making a playoff run. It was just unclear if they were MLS Cup-caliber good.
Turns out they were good enough to go on the road and knock off a much-fancied Atlanta team. They did it in a match that will go down in MLS lore as one of the best playoffs games, and best goalless draws in MLS history. The game delivered golden chances for both teams, with neither being able to break through. Good performances littered the box score for Columbus, but it was goalkeeper Zack Steffen who will merit most of the praise. He made several excellent saves during regular play and the penalty stage.
Last week the Crew’s season narrative took a strange and unexpected turn when owner Anthony Precourt revealed that he is seriously exploring relocating the franchise to Austin, Texas. It was just another season in the history of one of the original MLS franchises, a good season to that point but nothing otherwise remarkable. All of a sudden, off-the-field drama overtook the story.
As fans in Columbus and around the country rallied to the cause of keeping the team in their Ohio home, the Crew’s season morphed into populist tale. Whatever one makes of Precourt and his choices as a businessman, there was a clear rejection of relocation by many in the American soccer community. What if a team at the point of relocation won MLS Cup? Would that force their investor/operator to reconsider?
Stranger things have happened. Pro sports teams have backed out of moves to other markets at the eleventh hour. With nothing publicly announced or made official, the Crew aren’t yet at that late hour. With a run to an MLS Cup, perhaps the club could turn their season into one of redemption—for themselves, since they did lose the MLS Cup final on their home field in 2015, and for Columbus.
At the very least, the Crew will have a home playoff game. It promises to be a remarkable scene at MAPFRE Stadium. All of that anger and angst of the past week unleashed over 90 minutes against NYCFC. Fans in Ohio may question filling the building and putting money in Precout’s pockets as a result, but there’s much more to gain by showing up and displaying the passion for soccer in Columbus.
That’s a message not just for Precourt, but for MLS and its leadership. The ties that bind fans to clubs are sacrosanct, if not by owners, than by the people ultimately responsible for corralling the rogue among them.
There was a story to the Columbus Crew season, one of good play and little fanfare. If the Crew had beaten Atlanta in a world where there was no possible move to Austin, where NYCFC stood in the way of a conference final berth just as they did in 2015, there might be much to say beyond how under-the-radar they are.
Now the story is different. Columbus emerged victorious in one of the great playoff games in MLS history, against a team drawing 70,000-plus in a state-of-the-art stadium. It’s not that they weren’t supposed to be here, but it is that they weren’t supposed to be here like this. The story of the 2017 Columbus Crew just got good.
More From Jason Davis: