Columbus Crew SC making the Major League Soccer postseason is usually cause for celebration among Central Ohio soccer fans. Excitement this year, however, is watered down - to say the least - as the club's owner weighs a potential move to Austin, Texas.
After playing to a 2-2 draw with New York City FC, Crew players learned that they’ll take on Atlanta United on Thursday in a first-round knockout match.
The top two teams in each conference get a bye from the knockout round, and take on each of the first round winners.
Atlanta is a tough draw for Columbus, says Pat Murphy, who covers the Crew for the website Massive Report.
“I am not overly optimistic about the Crew’s chances,” Murphy says. “They played Atlanta twice this season, once in Atlanta and once in Columbus. Both were losses. If there’s a matchup that I thought was the worst for Columbus, it’s this.”
Murphy says Atlanta is a very fast and technically-sound team, which plays against Columbus’ strength. Columbus has had six wins, no losses and four draws in their last 10 games, according to MLS, just slightly better than Atlanta's 5-1-4 record.
Aside from stopping the best of what Atlanta has to offer, Crew players also face the distraction of a potential move. That’s especially tough for homegrown players like Will Trapp and Alex Crongale, both of whom are from Gahanna.
“To them, I think this means a little more because they’re playing in front of their literal home fans,” Murphy says.
Atlanta will host the knockout match at its Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The first playoff game comes after Mayor Andrew Ginther announced he and members of the local business community plan to meet with Crew owner Anthony Precourt and the MLS commissioner. Columbus is "resolved to do our part to keep the Columbus Crew SC in Columbus," Ginther said.
Commissioner Don Garber has expressed support for Precourt and his exploration of a potential move, calling the Crew’s attendance and business situation “concerning.”
In last week’s announcement that he could move the team, Precourt said the team needed a new downtown stadium to remain viable here. The Crew’s current home, MAPFRE Stadium, opened in 1999. At the time, it was MLS’ only soccer-specific stadium, but it was built cheaply by current standards and lacks many of the amenities and corporate sponsorships that owners covet.
On Sunday, more than 2,000 people turned out for a "Save the Crew" rally outside Columbus City Hall. After an outcry from fans, Crew owners announced on Thursday they would give full refunds to season ticket holders for the 2018 season, something the team previously refused.
"No final decisions have been made about the future of this Club and Crew SC will play at MAPFRE Stadium in 2018," Precourt said in a statement.