The players talk of themselves and the organization as a family, but one thing that was apparent on Saturday was how much this weekend was about their actual families as well. Wives caught up with each other, kids ran around and played together, and everyone seemed to have a story about something personal or meaningful while they were back in town.
The subject of family first came to the fore in a very public way during the panel discussion held on the plaza prior to the match. As we all know, upon returning from England, Brian McBride put his family first and returned to his hometown of Chicago to play with the Fire. His wife and daughters had followed him to Columbus and then to London, so he made the decision to follow them home where their daughters could grow up surrounded by family. This led to a few unfortunate years of McBride being a villain instead of an icon. “Treason” read a banner bearing McBride’s image during the 2008 Eastern Conference Final vs. the Fire. On Saturday, when asked what Columbus means to him, McBride opened up about that period in a public way for what I believe is the very first time. In true McBride fashion, he did it face to face, directly to the fans.
“It’s a loaded question,” he said when asked what Columbus means to him. “There’s so many things that go through my head. I always look at things more than just the soccer aspect of it. Anyone who knows me, my family was always the most important thing to me. When I finally met my wife, she was like, ‘I’m going to move to Columbus?’ I’m like, ‘Honey, you’re gonna love it. Trust me. You’re gonna love it.’ Even though she was only here for nine months, she felt like it was home. That was something that I always felt. It was something that wasn’t just about soccer.
“I know there was a period where I wasn’t very liked. Yes, I remember the banner. But it always felt like home. It wasn’t where I grew up, but it felt like home. It still does when we come back. My wife’s with me on this trip and we reminisce just driving down streets. There are some fun stories that we get to talk about. But even back when you hated me, I always loved (Columbus) and I loved you. Times change, but it’s a place where I learned to be a man. It’s a place where I learned all of my feelings about what is important in life were shown true.”
Putting family first after a long career almost caused Brad Friedel to miss this event. An athletic career can provide for one’s family in a major way, but the commitment it requires can also steal those little moments that can never be recaptured. When Friedel received his invitation to return home to Ohio for the celebration, he was excited until he saw that the event coincided with his daughter Izabella’s 12th birthday. He declined without a second thought. In retirement, family is first. He was not going to miss his daughter’s birthday.
Knowing how important the trip would be to her husband, Friedel’s wife had a suggestion: Why not go and take Izabella on a surprise father-daughter trip to Ohio for her birthday? She could see family and also be a part of the Crew SC festivities, which would make for a truly unique and memorable birthday. It wasn’t until Izabella got out of school on Friday that she learned she was being whisked away to the airport for a whirlwind birthday trip to Ohio. The red-eye flight put them in Columbus at 5:45 a.m. on Saturday. Friedel’s mom and other family members drove down from Cleveland to spend time with the birthday girl.
When I saw Izabella at the game that night, she was happily showing off pictures of her birthday cake and talking about how much fun she was having. As she mingled with the other Crew SC legends and their families, she had a blast taking photos with her iPad and then using an app to make goofy changes to the photos. A new friend that Izabella made that night was Alejandro Moreno, who volunteered for some photographic improvements. As you can see, Izabella delivered in a big way.
It was neat to hear some of things that players and their families did. Moreno and his wife, Melissa, visited old friends and neighbors. They also made a point to drive past St. Ann’s Hospital in Westerville, where their youngest child was born. “Drive by a hospital” is probably not high on most tourist itineraries, but these are the places in our community that have meaning to the players and their families. Melissa spoke of how the kindness and friendliness of Central Ohio reminded her of her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and how much Columbus felt like home to her.
The Morenos now live in Connecticut, where Alejandro works as a television analyst for ESPN FC, but Melissa said that Central Ohio will always have a special place in their hearts.
“I never wanted to leave Columbus,” she said.
Moreno raised his hands in the air to project his innocence. “Hey! I didn’t want to leave either!”
But as is often the case in professional sports, players and their families can be uprooted on a moment’s notice. After the 2009 season, Moreno was selected by the Philadelphia Union in the expansion draft. It was time for the Moreno family to move again. Columbus was soon in the moving truck’s rearview mirror, but it was not forgotten.
Brian Dunseth also never wanted to leave Columbus. Having just bought a house while hoping to put down roots in Central Ohio, he was devastated by his trade to Dallas in August of 2003. Being single at the time, leaving Columbus didn’t uproot a family. Rather, it eventually led him to one. After stops in Dallas and Bodens BK in Sweden, Dunseth returned to MLS with expansion side Real Salt Lake. It was there that he met his wife, Jade. The couple still resides in Utah with their two sons.
For Dunseth, the trip back to Ohio reunited him with so many families, but most importantly, it allowed him to share those moments and those people with Jade.
“It is family,” Dunny said. “When I was on the Crew, Brian and Dina had just gotten married, Tommy Presthus and Melissa were building their house and getting ready to have their first child, Mais and Diania, Yeags and Suzy, Clarkie and Laura…Duncs, Martino, and I, we were the young kids, and all of those families really took us in. For me, being married nine years now, and I didn’t get married until after my career was over, to be able to share those experiences with my wife, and to literally show her up close and personal what that city meant to me, and what that club still means to me, and then to have her meet some really, really influential people in my life….it means a lot. I was 25 years old. I was right in the wheelhouse of a young man’s life where you really start to figure out who you are as an adult. This city, and those people, really helped shape who I am. I am very, very fortunate to be a part of that. Not for a second do I ever take that for granted.”
Sometimes it’s the little things. For Gino Padula, the reunion event and halftime ceremony were a chance to share a Crew SC moment with his youngest daughter, who was too young to remember his playing days.
“Now she can remember how I played here,” he said. “It was the first time she saw me on the field, so now she can remember.”
Dante Washington expected to be flooded with memories as he and his wife Holly reunited with so many Black & Gold legends and their families. One familial surprise he didn’t expect took him back several years before Major League Soccer was even born.
Washington’s roommate with the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team was none other than Brad Friedel. While Dante was happy to see his friend of 25 years, he was shocked and thrilled to spend time sitting around a table laughing and conversing with Friedel’s mom after the game.
“When we were in the [Barcelona] Olympics, his mom and my mom hung out a lot and traveled together in Spain,” Dante said. “I saw her and I was like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe it!’ So it was great to see his mom.”
During the pregame panel discussion, Mike Clark was asked to say the first word that came to mind when he thought of Columbus.
“For me, it’s family,” he said. “It was lightning in a bottle in 1996 because we were all out of college, the group of us that came here. We were 22-23 years old. All the same age. We either met our wives, got married, had our first kids, and we all kinda came up together. That will never be able to happen again because of how the League’s grown. You’ll never be able to draft ten 22-year-olds at the same time. I think of family when I think of the Columbus Crew because we all grew up together.”
At the end of the night, as McBride reflected on the day’s events, he felt it was as true as ever.
“It’s almost like a culmination of what the Crew’s built in terms of a family atmosphere,” he said. “We had kids running around, wives catching up just like the guys were catching up with everyone telling stories. It’s a unique situation that we have and one that’s been magnified by what the Crew has put on for us this week.”