Now that the statute of limitations on my teenage misdeeds is likely up, and now that I have certainly repaid the stadium ten times over with the number of souvenir cups I have purchased and lined my cabinets with (in lieu of more appropriate plastic drinkware,) I must open with an admission: In the earliest days of my relationship with MAPFRE, I would sneak into the stadium.
This was a little bit easier back in 2000 when the team was exciting, but not an MLS Cup contender. If you could get past the gate on a night where the stadium wasn’t at capacity, all one had to do was wander. Stand around for a while until it became clear what seats weren’t going to be occupied. I remember that first home game of the 2000 season, sneaking out a breathtaking win over San Jose in a couple of overtimes. In the summer, there was Dante Washington – my favorite player – racking up a couple of assists on the way to dominating New England.
I was late to the sport as a player. I’d grown up on the eastside in an incredible era for eastside basketball, and I was lucky enough to live across the street from a part where all the best players came out to play. My interest in soccer arrived around the same time the Crew did. It felt like we were aligned. I had waded into the uncertain waters of a new interest, and there was a lifejacket to keep me afloat. And yes, I had more mischief than I had money, so I saw the team up close the only way I could.
After one of those few games I managed to get into, I reached my hand out for Jeff Cunningham - in a row of similar hands reaching out for Jeff Cunningham - and he breezed by grinning and slapping them all. I was not yet old enough to be cynical about heroes, especially sports heroes. It is an incredible memory for me, to be in awe of this team, even in a down season. They were like titans to a kid from the eastside who was figuring his way through falling in love with a new sport.
I haven’t missed a home opener in MAPFRE for at least the past decade, maybe more. It’s hard to tell. Some rituals I do are done out of devotion, and some I do simply because they propel me back towards a comfort so familiar that I’m no longer keeping track of the action as a tradition at all. Home openers in MAPFRE are the latter. In 2016, I drove through the night from Connecticut to get here and sleep a few hours before kickoff. In 2017, it was a redeye flight from Los Angeles after a reading, because it was the only way I could make a 2pm game with the time change.
There is something, for me, about sinking into the Nordecke for the first time in a year. A type of invincibility that comes with the simplicity of the collective. Presence, volume, many voices braiding into one voice. Even for all of my isolationist tendencies – tendencies that have undoubtedly grown more fierce this year – I ache for the fluorescent energy of the Nordecke always, but especially that first game of the year. People whose names I don’t know, but whose faces I remember. I learned what it is to be a fan of a team in that noisy cavern, rattling the sky from the north end of that beloved stadium.
There are those who might say that I’m too cynical, or relentlessly pessimistic. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but in between those two uncertain Octobers, I didn’t pay much attention to the actual mechanics of whether the team would leave or stay. When I heard the news, I was falling asleep in another city, preparing to fly home in the morning. Depending on where you fly in from, and what path gets taken, as a plane descends through the thinning clouds, MAPFRE can come into view, the unmistakable yellow of the bleachers and – from the right angle – the massive faces of the players draped along the stadium’s exterior. That morning, flying home and hovering over the empty stadium felt like the first step in a long, allow funeral. I’d committed myself to thinking that of course the team would leave. Not because I wanted them to. Rather, because it seemed like during the 2008 run and everything after, the joy that the team gave to me, personally, simply felt like a bonus. A dream that I could be shaken from at any moment, and so I prepared myself to be shaken from the dream. I spent most of those moments carving out spaces of gratitude for the past, not hope for the future. It might seem dark now, days removed from celebration. But it was the only way I could slowly detach myself from the process of having to potentially let go. I’d loved this team since their earliest days. The McBride days, the Snickers kit days. The days where the team, the stadium, the people in it were all feeling their way around in the dark, trying to find a harmonious intersection.
And I have to say, now, that what always bothered me from those who wanted the team moved or opponents who came into the stadium or anyone else, was this insistence that there were not people at the games. That was the primary weapon in the fight to uproot this team. That people were not in the stands. And I know, I get that when I say people, I mean it in a different way than a rival player or someone with whimsy and a wide pocketbook. I say it and I mean actual people. Not revenue, or quota, or optics. And there were people in those stands. And not just in 2017, and not just in 2018.
There were people in the stands during lean years where the team didn’t win a lot but played hard.
There were people in the stands on the hot weeknights of summer in the middle of a long season.
There were people in the stands at the end of 3-0 losses, still throwing their arms around each other and singing our boys to the finish line.
There were people in the midnight hours painting tifos and there were people holding those tifos aloft at every kickoff.
There were people pushing black and gold flags through a parade of smoke and noise after a goal.
I was there, I saw it. These were my people, too. So many of us strangers, but for the few hours we’d share on a Saturday, or a Sunday, or a Tuesday night. And so, when it was said that there were not people going to the games, it bothered me. It bothered those folks who had been there, by now, for generations. I’m saying this, simply, as a corrective. Not seeking retribution and certainly not seeking amends. The time for apologies has long passed, and as it turns out, I will take my apologies in championships. I will take my apologies in another generation of new young soccer fans getting to witness this team, once left for dead and now risen again, triumphant and unkillable. I like an underdog story. I like that we’re eternal underdogs. I like that, in the voices of national announcers during games, during another impossible run through a postseason, you can hear the surprise. That Columbus is still in it, going down swinging or not going down at all.
I woke up on Sunday morning to a flood of texts from old friends, people I’d loved and maybe lost touch with over the years, but especially this year. People who don’t live in this city but visited me in some time or another. They were congratulating me, but also reminiscing on the Crew memories I’d subjected them to. The pal I’d dragged to Land-Grant in November of 2017 to watch the Crew barely hold on in their second leg victory against NYFC sent me a shaky video of the celebration that day, friends and strangers relieved and falling into each other after the final whistle. The pals I’d taken to MAPFRE and pulled into the Nordecke just to watch their eyes widen as they let the scene envelop them. And it made me realize that this, too, was one of my favorite things. To offer people the same sense of wonder I had as a kid who somehow got through the gates with no cash in my pockets, to see the hometown team. To say, even for a moment, that this place I have loved for most of my life is now our place. Yes, I celebrate whatever is on the horizon, but when people talk about the legacy of that old stadium, they will have to say that on one of its last nights as the fortress for the Crew, a championship was delivered. You can say the stadium was falling apart, or barely fit to play in, but you cannot say that its old lights from above didn’t hit that hardware just right for one final trophy-lift at the fortress.
Long live MAPFRE, long live Sigi, and Kirk Urso too. Yes, Columbus is still in it. For a good, long while. Oh, how they would have missed us if we’d gone.