For the last time as a member of the Black & Gold, Duncan Oughton met the warm embrace of the Nordecke as the Crew played on behind him against the Colorado Rapids Saturday night. With fellow club legend and best friend Frankie Hejduk by his side, Columbus' favorite Kiwi said goodbye to the fans that have grown to love him as their fellow Crewvillian after pouring his heart and soul into the organization over the past 12 years.
It's a mutual love that began just after Oughton was drafted by the Crew as the 10th overall pick in the 2001 Major League Soccer SuperDraft out of Cal State-Fullerton. His first responsibility as an employee of the Black & Gold was to make a player appearance at Crew Stadium's first turn hosting a USA vs. Mexico World Cup Qualifier, just weeks following the draft.
"From that point in time, I fell in love with the stadium," Oughton recalls. "The atmosphere was cool. From then, I fell in love with the fans, the people, the town.
He continues, "The other day I was just sitting at the top of the stadium, just looking down over the field and thinking of how many good memories I've had on that field, off the field, on trips with the players -- and even Obetz too. I'll even miss Obetz."
Those memories include playing a role in all five of the Crew's five trophies, most notably playing all 90 minutes in the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final at Crew Stadium to secure the club's first piece of silverware and scoring to help draw the Colorado Rapids in October 2004 to clinch the MLS Supporters' Shield that year.
But above the trophies, Oughton is most proud of being himself. In the rollercoaster that is a career in professional soccer the Kiwi has stuck to his guns for better or for worse, earning the respect of everyone who has come to know him during his time with the Crew.
"Going through all the ups and downs and at the end of the day, just being me is what I'm most proud of," he says. "I feel like I've been true to myself all the way through. Whether it was good, bad or indifferent, I feel like I did as much as I could my way under the Crew brand. I'm proud of that. I don't think it went to my head as a player. I don't think it changed me as a person. I'm pretty proud of that. I think my parents did a good job of bringing me up."
Now, with his playing days far behind him, the 35-year-old Oughton shifts his focus to a new challenge. No longer will he juggle the roles of Assistant Coach, Assistant Technical Director, broadcast analyst, radio show host and co-Brand Ambassador, instead he will concentrate on helping players improve their game alongside good friend and fellow New Zealand native Ryan Nelsen at Toronto FC.
Oughton's passion for coaching began when he sat out the 2005 season recovering from a career-threatening knee injury. While sidelined, Oughton saw a different side of the game. He knew his athleticism would never be the same, but Oughton admits he had become a smarter player as result of his time as a spectator. The Kiwi returned to the field in August of the 2006 season, captaining the Crew to its first win in 13 matches in a 1-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls.
"I think I learned a lot when I was injured, watching the game," he says. "I think that in the long run, that's actually helped me grow as a coach. Sitting back and seeing things that I would've liked to do on the field, and what I would've done. I had to be smarter and better at doing that stuff because when I came back I obviously was not as fast as I was. I think it helped me a lot.
Spending the past two seasons following his retirement from playing in the broadcast booth has helped Oughton develop yet another perspective of soccer, but his deepest passion has remained on the field. Oughton has helped teach and develop young players in the team's day-to-day training sessions while wearing a number of other different hats for the Crew. Though he proved to be a lovable personality as a color commentator alongside Dwight Burgess on regional TV broadcasts, Oughton couldn't resist the temptation of joining Nelsen's staff in Toronto.
"Broadcasting was great and one day maybe I'll go back to to the broadcast side because I do enjoy it," he explains. "It's talking about soccer. As a coach, I talk about soccer everyday as well. I think I'm doing that on the field as well with a lot of other challenges that the broadcast doesn't give me. It's going to be challenging.
"I was a player my whole life before retiring. It's all I ever wanted to do. It was my dream. Just to be out on the field and in a place where I think I can influence people and I can make people better or I can help players either individually or as a group, it's what I enjoy doing. It's fun."
Knowing the Kiwis' history, Oughton's friends teased him about a possible move when Nelsen was named Head Coach of the Reds in January. After all, the New Zealanders' friendship and camaraderie is something that dates back to Oughton's first call-up with the All Whites when the two were roommates. Oughton reveals, however, that the invitation to join Toronto FC was a fairly recent occurrence.
"Obviously, a lot of other people said stuff like 'Oh you're going to Toronto, aren't you?' Even guys on the team were like 'When are you leaving for Toronto?' " He says. "It was never really a question when I talked to him and he was still learning more about the League, even though he already knows a lot considering he'd been away for so long. He asked me about certain players and we talked about stuff but it was never like 'Hey, you're coming to Toronto. I want you to come to Toronto.'
"When it did happen, it was a weird feeling."
For the first time in 12 years, Oughton will wake up Monday morning and not drive to Crew Stadium or the team's training facility in Obetz. Instead, the Kiwi will fill out new employment papers, receive a plenty of Toronto FC gear to replace his Columbus Black & Gold and begin a new journey alongside a friend.
Oughton's time in Columbus has come to a close, but the Black & Gold will always claim a massive piece of the Kiwi's heart.
"This is the team I started with, my first professional team," he explains. "They gave me the shot. It's the team I spent my whole career playing at. The fans have been outstanding. The guys I've come across on the field as teammates with the Crew, they've been amazing and they're friends for life. This club has given me so much. It's a part of who I am. The Columbus Crew is in my blood."
Oughton's heart has poured out beyond the field and broadcast booth in his past 12 years in Columbus. He's always been a fan favorite, never shying away from a pint with members of the Hudson Street Hooligans after a match. But moreover, the Kiwi has been an ambassador for the club with his compassion for others in the Columbus community and within the Crew organization.
When rookie midfielder Kirk Urso passed away last summer, Oughton took it upon himself to help make Mike and Sandy Urso's life as comfortable as possible in the days following their son's untimely death. Being the person he is, Oughton didn't think twice. The Kiwi was by Urso's parents' side around the clock in the days following the tragedy, assisting them with every need they had while in Columbus.
"I think anyone put in my situation would've done that for the Urso family," he says. "They're such good people. [Kirk] was such a great guy and his death was such a big loss for this club and obviously for his family. I still think about them every day."
Oughton has also been a familiar face in the Crew's community outreach. He most recently spearheaded the club's 2013 "Massive Makeover" project to provide a new fitness room at the Ronald McDonald House of Columbus.
"I guess I think of it as it's what should be done, and a lot of the [community] stuff doesn't get done as much as it should," he explains. "To me it's a no-brainer, it's stuff that should be done.
"The Ronald McDonald House is a great organization that helps so many families, people all over the world. People come from all over the world to go to that place. We should be represented in there because we should want to help people."
Columbus and the Crew family will surely miss their beloved Kiwi as he leaves the organization after having spent a third of his life bleeding Black & Gold. And while it will certainly be strange for most seeing Oughton in red on Saturday when the Crew clashes with Toronto FC at BMO Field (5:00 P.M. ET / FOX Sports Ohio), the Kiwi will now be considered a rival for the 270 minutes each year that the Black & Gold and the Reds meet.
"Obviously people think it's a weird move, but it is what it is," he says. "Now I'm going to put some Toronto in my blood and make the best of it. Obviously, I'll always have a piece of the Crew in my heart, but now it's time to beat the Crew.
"It's weird to say, but it has to be done."