Starting tomorrow, the final ranking of the Top Twenty Moments in Black & Gold history will be revealed five at a time. Numbers 20-6 will be revealed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The top five will be unveiled during an alumni-laden ceremony at halftime of Saturday's match vs. Portland.
I have endeavored to do my own ranking, mostly as an excuse to write about all 20 finalists. Each of these individual writeups were published previously in their chronological order. Here they are, all in one place and in the order I chose to rank them. My rankings could change day by day, but this is where they fell when I clicked “send” on my email to Crew HQ. Feel free to agree or tell me I’m an idiot. My ballot is published for conversational / educational purposes only.
So with all that out of the way, here are my rankings…
The Team of Firsts had the first first in MLS history, which was the awarding of the very first MLS franchise. In a bit of revisionist history, some scoff that Columbus was first merely because it was first alphabetically among the seven teams awarded that day. That is not the case. Boston was also awarded a team, although that club would swap “Boston” for “New England” when the brand identities were revealed in October of 1995. The reason Columbus had the distinction of being named first is because it was the only city to hit Major League Soccer’s threshold of 10,000 season ticket deposits. Obviously, a one-team league wouldn’t cut it, so other cities were admitted despite falling short of that requirement. Columbus had secured over 11,500 deposits, and on the day the city eclipsed the 10,000 mark, there was also a solar eclipse. As a result, the name Columbus Eclipse was part of the official application package. Like an eclipse itself, that name idea was fleeting.
Obtaining a team in the first place is obviously a huge moment, but I have very little recollection of this event. I was home in Cleveland on summer break from Ohio University. All I recall is seeing a blurb in the Plain Dealer and thinking, “Cool. Ohio got a team. I’ll be able to go to some games.”
(Little did I know. Ha!)
The reaction in Columbus was understandably a little more profound. The college town between Cleveland and Cincinnati was finally joining the big leagues. At the precipice of its phenomenal growth as a city, Columbus was at the forefront of soccer’s growth as a professional sport in America.
“This is a terrific opportunity, and one that's been a long time coming but is finally here,” Columbus Mayor Greg Lashutka said on that historic afternoon. “I think it's a great way to enter the major leagues.”
Since then, our friends the Columbus Blue Jackets were also born, so now Columbus has major league professional sports year-round.
This was huge. I am probably underselling it by ranking it as low as I have, and with the passage of time, this could conceivably climb higher in my rankings. But as for why it was not in my original ten, and why it is ranked where it is on this list, I will go back to a reddit post I made once my initial ten votes were revealed. A user named “PopeAlGore” commented that he was surprised that I didn’t include it in my ten votes because he felt that Precourt’s ownership has invigorated the franchise.
My response was that I totally agreed, but with only ten votes, I went with an action instead of a transaction. By voting for #NewCrew, I was voting for something Precourt DID as owner, rather than the ownership transaction itself. I figured that was more interesting and illustrative of the impact that he has had.
So yes, this is huge. It’s just a hard thing to rank. There have been many positives in the last two years, but most of this story is yet to unfold. It’s only been two years out of 20. Ownership is a long game. This moment can climb up the rankings with the passage of time. Then again, I’d probably be inclined to vote for the moments produced under Precourt’s stewardship, rather than the transaction itself, as monumental as it is. That’s more how my brain is wired. Your mileage may vary.
So #19 & #20 are #19 & #20 because they are transactional in nature. This gets the edge for #19 because Precourt’s purchase of the club from the Hunts was a bombshell that came out of seemingly nowhere, so it was the more dramatic and memorable of the two transactional moments.
What a fun moment this was, provided you left the stadium with your collarbone intact. In the closing minutes of Crew SC’s season finale against Philadelphia, goalkeeper William Hesmer, who had played every regular season minute to that point, broke his collarbone in an aerial collision with Philly defender Danny Califf. As if that weren’t bad enough, Columbus had already used all three substitutions, meaning a field player had to don the gloves.
Enter Eddie Gaven. The team’s MVP during the 2010 season, Gaven allowed one goal and made two saves to preserve a 3-1 victory.
“I had no idea,” Gaven said of his impromptu goalkeeping appearance. “BC [Brian Carroll] came over to me and said that I was going in goal. I was like, ‘Really?’ I actually thought he was joking around. He said, ‘Yeah, really.’ So I put the gloves on, put the shirt on, said a little prayer, and hoped for the best. I was actually psyched. It’s fun to play goalie and dive around and punt balls as far as you can.”
After allowing a rocket goal by Sebastien Le Toux, which Gaven jokingly blamed on not being able to warm up, he came back to make a pair of saves, including a diving stop to his right.
“I made that save look a little bit harder than it was,” he said. “The ball was little bit to my right, but I dove more than I needed to. It was good.”
After the game, teammate Jason Garey offered this assessment: “First of all, the whole situation was a hilarious sight. The gloves were too big for his hands…the shirt was down to his knees…it was unbelievable. It couldn’t have been any better. The only thing that could have made it funnier is if, after the goal, Eddie would have gone out and started cursing out his defense like a lot of goalies do.”
Footnote: Hesmer was not subbed out of the match—he was technically getting treatment off the field while still an eligible player—so he officially logged the full 2,700 minutes in 2010. (Only 2,695 of them were in goal. That means that in 2010, Hesmer technically totaled five minutes as a field player and one goal scored. Just not in the same game. More on that later.)
The Team of Firsts had yet another first before MLS ever even kicked off. This time, it was the very first draft pick in MLS history. With an entire player pool to choose from, Columbus had the chance to select the cornerstone of their franchise for years to come. Pro sports are littered with bad draft choices that have crippled franchises. My Cleveland Browns are the foremost practitioners of this sadistic art form.
Columbus Crew SC, however, nailed it. They could not have gotten the selection of Brian McBride any more right. Looking back at the draft, there is not a single person, even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that would have been a better selection.
Humble, fearless, hard-working, friendly, good-looking, and a possessor of that all-important ability to put the ball in the back of the net, McBride was the perfect ambassador for the club as he quickly became Crew SC’s first major star. He is unquestionably one of the foundational pillars upon which this club was built.
The number two pick was Jean Harbor. The number three pick was Ted Eck. There were definitely some MLS stars taken elsewhere in that first round, such as Robin Fraser (#4), Mark Chung (#6), and Raul Diaz Arce (#10), but nobody would have come close to the impact McBride had on Columbus, both on and off the field.
The following decade, Frankie Hejduk (#67 overall) would have a legendary reign over Crewville, as evidenced by the fact that he has joined McBride in Crew SC’s Circle of Honor, but Brian McBride was the perfect pick at the perfect time. It was a franchise-defining decision that the club got one billion percent correct.
It was a huge moment with a huge payoff.
How can you not love a night dedicated to honoring The Dude? The guy who captained the 2008 Massive Champions? The guy who loaned his MLS Cup championship ring to an injured fan? The guy for whom the club basically invented a job whereby he just gets to run around town being himself, thereby making people excited about Columbus Crew SC?
You can read my Dude of Honor edition of Sirk’s Notebook for a full look back at that night. But for those just passing through this article, I will end this section with some words from his halftime speech:
“My family always made me feel, even in times where things went wrong, that I was better than I was. You guys made me feel the same way here in Columbus. Even when I had those games where everyone was like, 'Frankie, whoa, what the heck is he doing?', you guys stood behind me if times were good and if times were bad. And that's what a family does—they stick together. I'm so honored, so privileged, to be a part of this community, to be a part of this city, to be a part of this club.”
In almost 20 full seasons, Crew SC has earned three points a grand total of eight times when trailing after 75 minutes. If you make it trailing by two goals after 75 minutes, they’ve earned three points exactly ONCE.
After a lackluster hour and 15 minutes at PPL Park, the Black & Gold completed one of the most stunning comebacks in MLS history. Not only did they overcome a late two-goal road deficit in the final 15 minutes to defeat Philadelphia 3-2, but they did it in the most astounding fashion by scoring all three goals in the span of four minutes and 22 seconds. And that includes all of the time spent celebrating and getting ready for kickoff after two of the goals!
It happened like this:
- * Ethan Finlay (Hector Jimenez, Tony Tchani) 78’
- * Justin Meram (Jairo Arrieta) 79’
- * Jairo Arrieta (Tony Tchani, Bernardo Anor) 82’
Unfrigginbelievable. I still can’t believe that it happened.
I didn’t intentionally rank this as #14, but how fitting.
It’s hard to believe that we will ever see anything quite like Stern John’s 1998 season ever again. On the recommendation of his cousin, Crew defender/midfielder Ansil Elcock, Columbus signed 21-year-old Stern John from the second-division New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers, where he had scored 16 goals in 26 appearances in 1997.
Things started off slowly in Columbus, but after four scoreless appearances, John bagged a hat trick in 5-1 flogging of the Miami Fusion at Ohio Stadium on April 18. He scored again the next week in a shootout loss at RFK Stadium.
A month later, on May 30, he suddenly bagged another hat trick in a 4-1 win vs. San Jose, running his goal total to seven. He scored single tallies in back to back weeks in mid-June, then added another goal in early July.
By the time Columbus hit the 20-game mark in early August, John looked like a really good find. He had scored 10 goals in 15 appearances. He had done all of his goal scoring in just six of those games, so he was perhaps a little streaky, but when he was on, he was ON.
And then the final seven weeks of the season happened. In the span of 12 games in 49 days, Stern John went off, scoring 16 goals. SIXTEEN! Streaky no more, he scored in nine of the Black & Gold’s final 12 matches. He was consistently unstoppable.
He scored two goals in a 6-1 slaughtering of New England on August 8. After a scoreless game in New Jersey, John came off the bench in the 53rd minute in the August 16 game against Kansas City. Enough time for a hat trick? Yep. John scored in the 71st, 79th, and 81st minutes to lead the Black & Gold to a 5-3 comeback win. Six days later, it was two goals in a 3-1 win vs. Tampa Bay. Seven days after that, it was two more goals in a 3-0 victory in Los Angeles. So that’s a hat trick and three braces in the span of just 21 days!
John briefly cooled down after that. He scored one paltry goal vs. the MetroStars on September 6, which ran his season total to 20, then put in 90 scoreless minutes apiece in shutout losses vs. Miami and at New England.
Then, as if he were a Rush fan, he went 2-1-1-2 in the final four games to boost his season total to 26, which was one shy of the league record held by Roy Lassiter of the 1996 Tampa Bay Mutiny. (Since equaled by Chris Wondolowski of the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes.)
When it was over, John’s season looked like this:
- Hat tricks: 3
- Braces: 5
- Singles: 7
That’s right, if Stern John scored a goal in 1998, it was more likely than not to be followed up by at least one more goal. That’s crazy.
Here are some more splits…
- First half of the season: 9
- Second half of the season: 17
- Home games: 20
- Road games: 6
TWENTY HOME GOALS! Stern John is the first player in Crew SC history to hit the 20-goal mark, and it’s crazy to think that he still would have done it even if he had sat out all 16 road games!
Kei Kamara became just the second player in club history to hit the 20-goal mark. He’s currently at 12 home goals and nine road goals, for an overall total of 21.
Anyway, Stern John’s 1998 season was nuts. Absolutely nuts. Those final seven weeks are just off the charts. Ridiculous.
Even if you are too young to remember Stern John’s 1998 season, please applaud the heck out of that man when he’s in town on for the September 26 match. What he did was legendary, and it has revealed itself to be even more so with the passage of time.
You can see some of Stern’s handiwork in the following video, including an example of the famous Stern Turn at the 1:18 mark…
This is surely the most overlooked trophy in the trophy case. Some of it is that it wasn’t that exciting of a team. They had the second-stingiest defense in the league, allowing just 32 goals in 30 games, but they finished 6th out of ten in goals scored, with 40. They finished with more ties (13) than wins (12.) And, of course, they had one of the frustratingly spectacular playoff flameouts in MLS history, missing two penalty kicks in a 1-1 home draw with New England, thereby losing the series 2-1 on aggregate.
I get all that, but some of the criticism is unfair. Let’s start with the obvious. Whatever their real or perceived shortcomings, they were still better than everyone else in the regular season. After 30 games, they came out on top. Nobody did it better. That’s just a fact. First place is first place. They earned the trophy.
Part of it is also that the 2004 Crew prevailed in a tightly-contested season. From year to year, there are variations in how the talent and results are distributed. Some years, it’s like a typical bell curve, with a few good teams, a bunch of average-ish teams, and then a few bad teams. Some years skew with a couple outliers at the top but no real outliers at the bottom. Other years have some outliers only at the bottom, pushing all manner of points up the table. And, of course, some years just have more ties than others, which impacts the number of points that are available across the league, thereby making it tighter across the board.
2004 was one of those years where everything was bunched together. Columbus lost the first three games of the season, then lost only twice in the final 27. The last loss occurred on June 26, after which Columbus finished the year on an 18-game unbeaten streak, going 8-0-10 the rest of the way.
There were a lot of ties, but that was true of the league. 31% of the games ended in draws, so points were getting sucked out of the table left and right. Only three teams finished with fewer than nine draws that year, so Columbus was not alone in that regard. With so many ties league-wide, the magnitude of each win and loss became even greater, and that’s where Columbus excelled. If there were three points awarded, they always did the taking, never the giving. At 8-0-10, they took 34 points and only gave 10, meaning they accrued a surplus of 24 points. Had they gone, say, 11-6-1 over the same stretch, they would have earned the same 34 points with three more wins, but they would have given away 19, for a surplus of only 15 points. The 2004 Columbus Crew was a boa constrictor, slowly and calmly tightening its grip on the Supporters’ Shield.
And then the other thing is that the whole league was such an abnormally tight race. From 1996-2003, the Shield winner outpaced the median team by 16 points on average, and topped the bottom team by an average of over 31 points. In 2004, Columbus was 16 points better than last place Chicago. What was normally the gap between the top and median was instead the gap from the top all the way to the bottom of the league. Columbus also finished just 8.5 points better than the median team, which was another all-time low at time.
The narrow 16-point gap between top and bottom is a record that still stands to this day. Through 19 seasons, that gap now averages over 32 points per year. The 8.5-point gap between the Shield winner and the median has since been eclipsed by the 2013 New York Red Bulls, who were 8.0 points better than the median team. But they were 43 points better than last-place D.C. United, so there was still some overall separation. Through 19 seasons, the gap between the top and the median is still over 15 points on average.
So the 2004 Columbus Crew in some ways are victims of winning a hard-fought and extremely tight race from top to middle to bottom, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in MLS before or since. (Well, that and the playoff debacle.)
And for all of their lack of goal scoring excitement, it’s pretty funny that goals scored is what earned them the Shield. They finished tied on points and goal differential with Kansas City, but scored two more goals on the season to claim the tiebreaker, 40-38.
And one last thing about the 2004 Supporters’ Shield. Columbus needed a draw (and preferably at least one goal) in the final game at Colorado to clinch the Shield. On October 17, 2004, the Black & Gold got the 1-1 draw. That goal was scored by Duncan Oughton. Cheers, mate.
In a way, this Shield feels somewhat similar to 2004. It’s just that the team is much more beloved. Like 2004, the Black & Gold got off to a horrible start. They were winless (0-2-5) after seven tie-intensive games, and only had one win in their first nine matches (1-2-6.) They were even similar to the 2004 Crew in scoring 41 goals and conceding 31, compared to 40 and 32 just five years earlier. And then there was the 49-point regular season followed by another agonizing playoff flameout.
But anyway, by the end of the regular season, just like in 2004, they were a late season juggernaut going 9-2-3 down the stretch, coming back to clip Los Angeles and Houston by one point each to claim the Shield.
The most monumental thing about this Shield is that Columbus made history by winning it. The 2008 Crew became the fifth team in MLS history to win the Supporters’ Shield / MLS Cup double. Of the previous four winners, none had claimed either of those trophies while defending their titles the following year. To this day, the 2009 Crew is the only team to successfully defend the Supporters’ Shield the year after winning the MLS double. Since then, the 2012 LA Galaxy successfully defended MLS Cup, but not the Shield, one year after winning the MLS double in 2011.
Unlike the other two Shields in Crew SC history, the 2008 Crew did not get off to a slow start. Quite the opposite, in fact. They stormed out of the gate with six wins in their first seven matches. Then came a four-game goalless stretch that produced an 0-3-1 mark, capped by a 2-0 home loss to the expansion San Jose Earthquakes. Then came a 2-1-3 stretch where they regained their footing. Then came dominance. They went 9-2-2 down the stretch to finish six points ahead of Houston for the Shield.
Part of winning the Shield is grabbing points that others don’t get. For example, in 2008, the Black & Gold went 4-7-5 when allowing the first goal. That’s 17 points in 16 games, for 1.07 points per game. At the time, they became only the eighth team in MLS history to average over a point per game when allowing the first goal. (Which is kind of important when you allow the first goal in more than half of your games.) Another stunning fact is that in the first 12 years of Crew SC history, the Black & Gold came back to earn points three times when trailing 2-0. In 2008, they did it three times in the span of 26 days!
“We don’t panic,” Danny O’Rourke said that September. “We feel like we can come back from anything.”
“We’ve got strong character,” added William Hesmer. “We’ve proven time and time again that we’re a resilient group.”
Sometimes resilience isn’t necessary. Another part of winning the Shield is not losing games you should have won. Columbus went a perfect 13-0-0 when scoring the first goal. Incredible.
And oh by the way, almost unanimously amongst the punditry, Crew SC was picked to battle Toronto FC for last place in 2008. Here’s what Hesmer had to say when I reminded him of that fact in the locker room after the season-ending 1-0 win over D.C. United:
“It feels good when you’re lying in bed, and in the back of your head you can think, ‘Screw you guys! We knew we were better than you all thought.’ But at the same time, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Unlike 2004 and 2009, that extra work got done in a big way in 2008.
I devoted an entire chapter to this in A Massive Season, but for a while, there was an annoying bit of fiction going around that 2,300 Toronto FC fans came to Columbus and humiliated Crew fans and as a result, they got together and formed the Nordecke. It made for a good soundbite, since this was the MLS era in which Toronto was inventing everything before Seattle eventually invented everything, but the only problem was that it wasn’t true.
In 2007, Crew Union, Hudson Street Hooligans, and La Turbina Amarilla were scattered across the North End. When the Hunts erected the stage at that end of the field, the three supporters groups were then shoehorned into the north corner, which is where the name “Nordecke” would come from.
On that afternoon, knowing that the fans were going to be a big story, Dante Washington and I watched the game from the upper deck on the west side, right near midfield. That way we were equidistant from both sets of fans. The honest truth is that the 1,000-strong Nordecke was louder than the 2,300-strong Maple Menace. Granted, the 2-0 score probably helped with that.
The achievement was significant. Crew supporter groups had traditionally been a fractious lot. As much as it sucked, it wasn’t uncommon for several hundred Fire fans to come in and chant “Fiiyyyyyyyy-uuuurrrrrrre” for 90 minutes and be the loudest group in the stadium. Granted, the relentlessly pro-Chicago scorelines over the years also probably had a lot to do with that. But on March 29, 2008, all that changed. In the face of a record away-fan invasion, Crew supporters banded together and rose to the occasion.
Toronto did play an unwitting role in the creation of the Nordecke. Their incessant off-season smack talk about how they were going to take over our stadium provided the impetus for the Nordecke to get its act together. They were ready. And they prevailed.
“Our section over in the corner responded to all of the hype over the Toronto fans,” noted Danny O’Rourke from the winning locker room. “They put on a show today.”
“I thought it was great how our fans stepped up to the challenge,” said Crew coach Sigi Schmid in his postgame press conference. “I know they were disappointed with the stage going in, but with all of them sitting together in the corner, I thought it was tremendous. To see all that black and gold, and all the flags, I thought it was tremendous.”
So it wasn’t Toronto humiliating Crew fans that created the Nordecke AFTER March 29, 2008. It was Toronto prematurely running its mouth beforehand that inspired the Nordecke to rise to the occasion ON March 29, 2008.
The lesson, as always, is #LOLTFC.
This ranks so high based purely on joy. It’s definitely not the 9th most important thing to ever happen in Crew SC history, but wow, what a moment. How can you watch this video clip without laughing and smiling?
And now, a correction. When I wrote about this earlier when casting my ten votes in the first phase of this process, I conflated my text conversation with team ops man Tucker Walther with a conversation I had with someone else who also got news of the goal second-hand. I’ve since found the actual text conversation with Tucker from the Crew locker room, which, with Tucker’s blessing, I put in a Notebook in 2010.
On the night Hesmer scored, I was about to enter a church to see my friend JenJennyJennifer get married. Since I had lost the radio signal in the second half on my way to Cincinnati, I texted Tucker to find out the final score. Here was our conversation…
Me: “At wedding. What was final. We were down two one last I saw.”
Tucker: “2-2. Won’t believe the final. Hesmer scored to tie after 90th minute.”
Me: “Get. The. [Bleep]. Out.”
Tucker: “Ran from our goal on a corner, settles a bouncing ball, and scores on TFC. Amazing.”
Me: “Holy [bleep]. Tell Will I said congrats on finally passing Danny (O’Rourke) on all-time goal scoring list.”
Tucker: “He says not tough when you can actually kick a soccer ball.”
When I talked directly to William a few days later, he said, “It just fell to my feet and I found a way not to mess it up. It was like the world stopped for a moment.”
I was also treated to Duncan Oughton and Brian Carroll each doing their best Hesmer impersonation, whereby they brought an imaginary ball down, did 15 bajillion stutter steps, and then kicked the ball into an imaginary goal.
“I think Duncan and BC are just a little jealous that I showed more composure than they would have,” Hesmer said.
Anyway, for added context that added to the joyousness, to that point in their history, Toronto FC had been winless against Columbus in ten tries. They finally appeared to have that elusive first victory in the bag, only to have it snatched away by the visiting goalkeeper scoring a stoppage time equalizer. The winless streak grew to 11. It was one of the ultimate #LOLTFC moments and it’s a legendary goal in Black & Gold lore.
Rebranding a team or visibly taking a club into a new era is a dangerous endeavor. It changes the entire image of the club, so the stakes are high. In the worst case scenario, if you do a horrendous job of it, you end up alienating your embarrassed fans and severing the emotional connection they had with the team. But if you do a great job of it, you further connect with your fans and create—to choose some words not at all randomly— “a badge of honor for all to wear.”
When the Columbus Crew revealed their new Columbus Crew SC badge on October 8, 2014, the capacity crowd at the LC Pavilion roared its approval. As Anthony Precourt set out to refresh the team’s visual identity, he entrusted the project to the internal staff in Columbus. Led by staff members Will Bennett and Eric Sinicki, the club produced a gorgeous logo with legitimate meaning. And the events leading up to the unveiling, and the reveal party itself, were perfectly executed. The whole thing, from top to bottom and start to finish, was the front office equivalent of an MLS Cup championship.
Like with the Stern John entry, there I go again with an accidentally perfect numerical ranking. There have been some brilliant individual seasons in Crew SC history, including Brian McBride’s debut season in 1996, Brad Friedel’s Goalkeeper of the Year performance in 1997, Stern John’s 26-goal rampage in 1998, Dante Washington’s 15-goal / 9-assist beast in 2000, Brian Maisonneuve’s terrific comeback in 2001, Robin Fraser (2004) and Chad Marshall (2008, 2009) in their Defender of the Year seasons, all the way through to the currently incredible seasons being put together by Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay.
But towering above them all is the 2008 campaign of Guillermo Barros Schelotto. It was the greatest season by the greatest player to ever wear the shirt. Someday, Guillermo Barros Schelotto will rightfully join Crew SC legends Brian McBride and Frankie Hejduk in the Circle of Honor. If you want to learn what made Guille so great, or if you simply want to reminisce about his greatness, please read the Circle of Honor profile I wrote in 2014. You will see why Guille’s 2008 campaign absolutely had to rank high on this list for me.
This is high on my list for two reasons. As a passionate advocate for Crew SC history, I love the Circle of Honor. I am overjoyed that it exists. I can’t wait until Guillermo Barros Schelotto and other Black & Gold greats join deserving inductees Brian McBride and Frankie Hejduk in the Circle of Honor. So a vote for this is in part a vote for the Circle of Honor itself.
But mostly, the vote is for Brian McBride’s induction as-is. It was a beautiful moment that a meant a lot to the club, the fans, and to Brian himself. For more context, here’s part of what I wrote in that week’s Notebook…
Three years ago, this was the reception that Brian McBride got when he returned to Crew Stadium with the Chicago Fire for the 2008 Eastern Conference Final:
After completing his outstanding stint with Fulham in the English Premier League, McBride chose to go home. His wife and daughters had followed him to Columbus and then to London. He felt it was time to follow them home to Chicago, where they would make their permanent residence surrounded by family. It was a bitter pill to swallow for many Crew fans. An iconic Crew player suited up for a bitter rival. Ironically, the same virtues that made him so revered in Columbus had steered him to Chicago. It was only natural that Brian McBride would lay himself out there and take a beating in an attempt to do the right thing for those closest to him. He absorbed countless elbows while wearing black and gold. He would absorb countless insults while dressed in baboon-butt red.
So on that cold November night, McBride was called a traitor. He was booed. He was heckled. And he scored. Of course he scored. But in the end, the Crew triumphed and went on to win MLS Cup, while McBride suffered yet another crushing near miss. Afterward, McBride spoke highly of Columbus and the Crew. He reiterated that he had no ill will.
Brian knew it was just business. I’m sure it stung…how could it not? But his goal had stung the Columbus fans too. How could it not? Circumstances made this relationship messy. And that’s understandable. But as I wrote in A Massive Season, my hope was that the moment he retired, McBride would once again be accepted as the Crew legend that he is.
I think that is part of what made Saturday so special to me. It seemed that the entirety of Crew history was on display. Old timers were on the field at halftime with McBride. San Jose brought some beloved former Crew players back to town. Massive Champions like Schelotto, Padula, and Iro mingled with fans while watching the game as civilians in the stands. The promising young nucleus of future Crew teams battled on the field. Even Tony Tchani, acquired in a trade the previous day, was making the rounds fresh upon his arrival in Columbus.
Depending on where your eyes roamed, the Crew’s past, present, and/or future were constantly in view. Players come and go, and people can get mad at people, and things can go wrong for a spell, and life isn’t always pretty. But the community endures. On Saturday, whether obligated or not, all of these people found a reason to be at Crew Stadium, and the fans welcomed back every last one of them.
Yes, even the man once labeled a traitor. For three years, the Nordecke booed Brian McBride for his crimes against Crew-manity. On Saturday, the Nordecke repeatedly chanted “Thank you Brian!” They welcomed him with open arms when he came by to visit in the second half. McBride’s status as a local soccer icon had finally been restored in all its well-deserved glory.
Brian McBride, family man, had been home for three years.
Brian McBride, Crew legend, has come home at last.
The very first game seems like a natural for a list like this. What’s a bigger moment than existing? It’s why we celebrate birthdays every year. I was one of the 25,266 in attendance at Ohio Stadium that night. How amazing it felt to see that many people turn out for a soccer game. It was the largest-attended soccer game I had been to in my life to that point.
But while it was great to have a team and a league, and while it was great to have it be a real thing being played on (a smallish patch of) real grass right before my very eyes, the thing that locks down the inaugural game for me was the legendary Bo Oshoniyi to Brian McBride goal, where the only time the ball touched the field was the bounce it took just before crossing the goal line. With that goal, McBride’s star was born. What a moment.
“It was a memorable night," Lamar Hunt told the Columbus Dispatch after the game. “I don't know if I've ever been involved in anything that had a more exciting start in my life. It was just bedlam out here. Heck, the crowd was going for blood at the end. They wanted more goals.”
This will always be special because it was the first (and in some cases only) piece of hardware won by the founding core. Guys like Brian McBride, Mike Clark, Brian Maisonneuve, and Robert Warzycha had been around since 1996 and had come up just short time and time again in their quest to bring a trophy to Columbus. They ran into the D.C. United juggernaut in the 1990s and had lost a total of four Eastern Conference Finals by that point. They had even advanced to the 1998 U.S. Open Cup final before dropping an overtime decision to the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field. It was one near-miss after another for this group.
And then on October 24, 2002, they finally did it, defeating the MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy, 1-0, to claim the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship. Freddy Garcia scored the goal. Robert Warzycha, in the final moments of his playing career, made a stoppage time goalmouth clearance to preserve the victory.
And then those 1996 originals got to go on the podium and celebrate with Lamar Hunt as they hoisted the trophy that bears his name. It was a special and deserving moment of glory for some of the people that played a major role in the founding and building of the club.
“This is extremely nice,” McBride said afterward. “It's especially nice for all the guys who have been here for a long time, not to mention winning it in front of our fans. We're relieved after seven years.”
“We finally ended a season with a win,” quipped defender Mike Clark.
And such a special win at that.
It sounds counterintuitive since Crew SC won MLS Cup ten days later, but I feel that this was the biggest win in Black & Gold history. The 2008 season was incredible, but now it ran into a roadblock fraught with peril. First, Crew SC entered the game 0-for-4 in their previous Eastern Conference Finals attempts. It was basically the Playoff Round of Doom. Second, the Chicago Fire historically owned this rivalry. Going into the game, Chicago was 20-10-8 all-time against Columbus in all competitions, including 9-4-4 at MAPFRE Stadium, which Fire fans dismissively referred to as “Firehouse East.” Third, the 2008 Fire matched up well with Crew SC. Both regular season meetings ended in 2-2 draws. Fourth, two of the Fire’s starters were Jon Busch and Brian McBride, beloved members of Crew SC’s 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship squad, who were now trying to get to their first MLS Cup by denying the Black & Gold the same.
There was a lot on the line.
At first, the nightmare scenario played out in predictable fashion. Brian McBride, Crew SC legend, scored to give the Fire 1-0 lead. Had the greatest season in Crew SC history ended because of a goal by Brian McBride, I don’t think Columbus fans ever would have recovered. Not only would have killed a dream, but it also would have emotionally tarnished the legacy of a previously revered figure forevermore.
But then Chad Marshall scored THE GOAL to tie the game early in the second half, outleaping McBride to bury a corner kick header. A few minutes later, Eddie Gaven put Columbus on top. They held the lead and advanced to their first MLS Cup. Many, many demons were exorcised that night.
Technically, winning MLS Cup ten days later was the biggest win in Crew SC history, but the comeback in this Fire game gets my vote because the devastation done by a 1-0 loss would have been incalculable.
Columbus Crew SC is proudly a team of firsts, but no first was more important than the opening of Crew Stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium) in 1999. With MLS in its infancy and far from a sure bet to survive and thrive, Hunt built the stadium with $28.5 million of his own money. Lamar gambled that if the sport was presented in the right way, instead of being swallowed whole in cavernous NFL stadiums, the game would better resonate with those in attendance and those watching on television. He also gambled that stadiums were the key to making MLS sustainable. If Hunt’s stadium wager bombed in Columbus, it very well could have been curtains for MLS in the early 2000s. But Lamar’s gamble paid off handsomely in Columbus and it soon became the blueprint for the entire league. MLS has grown so much since 1999, and now most of the league plays in soccer-specific digs. Lamar’s decision to build the stadium also altered the trajectory of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, where MAPFRE Stadium became home to pro-American crowds who gather every four years to watch the U.S. Men’s National Team beat Mexico 2-0 in World Cup qualifying. That’s slightly off-topic, but immensely important nonetheless.
As for the inaugural game, Jeff Cunningham scored the first goal in stadium history, then Stern John added another as Crew SC topped New England by the score of—foreshadowing alert!—2-0.
Afterward, the late Tom Fitzgerald, who coached Crew SC from 1996-2001, summed it up with these words that appear, in part, on his memorial rock in Founder’s Park:
“It was an incredibly awesome night for soccer, not only for the fans in Columbus, but across the country as well. I didn’t touch the floor from the time I left the locker room until the time I sat on the bench. The team was emotional. I was emotional. It was just an emotional night. And then to win the game with a 2-0 shutout victory…you couldn’t have asked for a better script.”
After every home game, I stop by Founder’s Park to visit Fitz. And Kirk Urso. And Lamar Hunt, whose statue permanently gazes upon the first-of-its-kind stadium that serves as a loving and tangible monument to his history-altering belief in Columbus, MLS, and the sport of soccer in the United States
Beating Chicago in the 2008 Eastern Conference Final was the biggest win in Crew SC history, but closing the deal with 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls in MLS Cup has been the best moment of the first 20 seasons.
After beating Chicago, there was little doubt in my mind that Columbus was going to beat the heavy underdog New York Red Bulls in MLS Cup. There was of course *some* doubt since I am from Cleveland and can’t help myself, but I was uncharacteristically confident heading into MLS Cup.
That confidence was rewarded. Guille to Moreno for an impossible angle goal. Guille to Chad Marshall to immediately answer a Red Bulls equalizer. And then that most magically Massive moment, Guille to Frankie to seal the championship. There may never be a more poetic crowning moment than that goal, even if MLS is still kicking 300 years from now.
I could write forever about this, and in fact I already did. PLUG ALERT! If you want to learn more about this game or this team or this season, go buy A Massive Season if you haven’t already.
I end this from a quote from my conversation with Danny O’Rourke on the field after the game.
“This is for everybody,” O’Rourke said. “This is for the city, the organization, and all the players that have ever come through. We’re just fortunate to be the first team to win it for the Crew, but this is for everyone back home in Columbus and for everyone that has ever cared about the Crew.”
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