Multiple times on Saturday, Brad Friedel posed an interesting rhetorical question: If Columbus Crew SC, in its current form, had been in existence while he was growing up in suburban Cleveland, would he have been so eager to play in Europe?
During his actual childhood, looking abroad was a no-brainer. There wasn’t even a first-division league in the United States until Friedel had already embarked on his professional career. He did come to MLS for the playoff push in 1996, then spent another full year in Columbus before heading to the Premier League for 18 seasons. The MLS he left in the late 1990s would be almost unrecognizable to players today, just as the current state of Crew SC is in stark contrast to his stint in Black & Gold.
“Coming back here is night and day compared to playing at the Horseshoe,” he said. “Compared to the stadium now, and seeing the redevelopment Gregg put on at Obetz, which I saw a couple weeks ago before the Dallas game, and the really good strides the club has taken and the season that they’re having. You can see the progress Gregg has made on the field as well from last season to this season, so I think it has gotten them a lot more buzz in the city. It’s a sellout tonight. It just keeps getting better and better every time I come back.”
So would young Brad Friedel have felt such yearning to go from Bay Village to England had present-day Columbus Crew SC existed? Not only did he ask this question multiple times on Saturday, he answered it too.
“Maybe not, because this is a very good place to develop,” he said. “It’s completely different on all levels, from coaching, to the fan support, to the fans’ knowledge, to the sponsorship levels, to the television levels, it’s just night and day. And for the better.”
Brian McBride echoed Friedel’s sentiments. Well, he did so in shorthand.
“I think you touched on everything,” he said while looking over at the legendary goalkeeper.
Brian Dunseth, who is, or has been, pretty much everywhere in MLS, also felt the same way.
“It’s really fun to see how this organization has evolved over the last 20 years, through some ups and some downs, to see the product on the field with style, substance, and identity,” he said. “I think it’s a very proud time for this club.”
Before pregame warmups, Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter invited Friedel, McBride, Dunseth, Mike Clark, Stern John, Alejandro Moreno, Frankie Hejduk, and Duncan Oughton into the locker room to meet with the team.
“We came around the corner and Gregg said a few words to the team,” Oughton said. “We got to shake hands with the team. Obviously, they’re getting ready for a game, so you want to be careful of your boundaries and all that. I’ve worked with a decent amount of those guys, so it was nice to shake their hands.”
Dunseth elaborated more on Berhalter’s message to the squad.
“All credit to Gregg Berhalter for bringing us in for the pregame talk and talking about us being the culture of the club and what it means to play for the badge and play for the city,” he said. “It really was the ultimate honor.”
Berhalter described the pregame meeting as “fantastic.”
“Those guys define what it means to play for Columbus Crew SC,” he said. “When you look at the names here, and the tradition and culture they helped build, it’s nice to get them back. They’re a big part of this organization and it’s nice to be able to honor them. It’s also nice for the players to come in contact with them. You hear the names, but to see them live and really appreciate what they’ve done for this club.”
In a perfect world, Crew SC would have gone out and stomped the Portland Timbers. It didn’t work out that way, but despite the Black & Gold’s 2-1 loss, the current squad was happy to see so many legends in the house.
Captain Michal Parkhurst said, “You have a lot of respect for the guys that paved the way for where we are today. It’s great to see them and to see that they’re being honored, and to have them back in the stadium to see the changes that are around here with a packed house. It was really nice.”
For Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark, the result made the encounter bittersweet.
“For me, it’s one of the more disappointing things, that we lost in front of them,” he said. “I grew up watching a lot of these guys. For me to even see them…when I saw Brad Friedel at training (in early September), I almost jumped him. It probably weirded him out. But I grew up watching him, so you always go up next to him and kind of measure your height to see how you stack up since you’ve only seen him on TV.
“We have quite a club here,” the goalkeeper continued. “To see all of those guys together in the same spot and to see them in here before the game, it makes it more disappointing that we lost the game with them here.”
Columbus Crew SC Investor-Operator Anthony Precourt greatly enjoyed the Black & Gold Twenty countdown, as well as the reunion of Columbus legends. He cherished the opportunity to soak up the club’s heritage from the fans over the preceding weeks, and then from the players themselves on the big night.
“It was a thrill for me to spend some time with these guys,” Precourt said. “Brad Friedel, Brian McBride, Dante Washington, Alejandro Moreno…it’s incredible to think of some of the talent that we have here. As a club, we wouldn’t be where we are today without the contributions that they’ve all made on and off the field, for U.S. Soccer and for Columbus Crew SC. It’s a big, big night.”
Precourt’s organization has accomplished so much during his tenure, be it stadium and training center improvements, the implementation of an exciting and distinctive style of play under Berhalter, many business achievements (such as stadium naming rights) under Andy Loughnane, not to mention the gorgeous new logo that connects the club to the community, that it sometimes seems surreal to think that he has only owned the club for barely two of the 20 seasons.
“Ten percent!” he said with a laugh after easily calculating his time-equity. “Ten percent!”
As someone who cares deeply about Crew SC, Precourt has appreciated this year’s dive into the 90% of the club’s history that pre-dates his arrival in Columbus. Likewise, he appreciates that the players who make up that history have been keen on the progression of the club.
“It’s been nice to hear them say that they’ve been noticing all of the changes that we’ve been making,” Precourt said. “Even something like the Heineken Star Lounge, they’re like, ‘Wow! We didn’t have this when we were here!’ As a club, we keep on moving the needle onward and upward.”
Brian McBride and the rest of the legends appeared to be having the time of their lives during the reunion. The fans clearly enjoyed seeing and interacting with their favorite players from days gone by. Beyond the frivolity and nostalgia, however, lurked something much more important in McBride’s view. In his experience, events like this matter profoundly to the character of a club.
“What it does is that it lets the guys who are playing here now realize that there is a culture,” the U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer said. “There’s a family bond that the Crew respects. It just makes you feel like you have something that will never be taken away. The ones that don’t necessarily reach out to past players to have that sort of formal or informal relationship, when you leave the club, you think that’s it. You’re done with the club. That’s not good. The best clubs in the world make sure that it’s not that way.”