Nov 4, 2018; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC defender Jonathan Mensah (4) reacts after the end of the game against New York Red Bulls at Mapfre Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
HARRISON, N.J. — Columbus Crew SC fell short of its perfect ending Sunday night.
Trailing 1-0 to start the second half of its Eastern Conference semifinal, the Crew just need to score once to advance with an aggregate advantage in the two-leg series. Instead, New York Red Bulls midfielder Daniel Royer found the back of the net twice — in the 73rd and 76th minutes — and Columbus’ season was over.
But for the Crew SC family, the ending brings a promise of a beginning not always certain.
“Under the harsh conditions of the whole ‘Save the Crew,’ we continued to perform and work for each other and our pride and our heart,” Steffen said after the match. “We are warriors. We have gone through adversity. We continued to do our business. We worked hard and worked for each other. … The guys grinded for 10 months, and I love each and everyone of these guys.”
More than a year ago, Columbus’ latest chapter ripped open with a jarring introduction. The night of Oct. 16, 2017, just six days after the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, news broke that Columbus owner Anthony Precourt was “exploring” relocating the team to Austin, Texas.
In the midst of the 2017 MLS Playoffs, Columbus found itself in the middle of a strange plot twist. The Crew finished that season with a loss to eventual MLS champion Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final and began the 2018 season with uncertainty looming.
Rumors of Austin swirled. Attendance numbers dropped with the increasing tension between ownership and fans. #SaveTheCrew swept the nation. Offers for goalkeeper Zack Steffen, the USMNT’s newly-anointed star, came from Europe. And the potential grew for head coach Gregg Berhalter to become the next national team coach.
But the players seemed to remain laser focused.
Crew SC started March with a four-game unbeaten run and quickly climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference. During the final months of the season, the Crew’s playoff spot was not guaranteed, but the team rallied and grabbed one of the final qualification spots on Decision Day.
— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) October 30, 2018
In the fifth seed, Columbus traveled to red-hot D.C. United and won in familiar penalty shootout style–similar to the 2017 knockout round against Atlanta United.
“We have been in this situation,” midfielder Federico Higuain said about the pressure this season. “We can say that we are proud, but we are looking for more.”
Next up, the Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls. Crew SC captured a 1-0 victory at home, but eventually lost 3-1 on aggregate goals.
“It’s the character of the guys,” Berhalter said of the team’s performance under duress this year. “People talk about the staff or the support staff, but in the end it’s the players. It’s the players that come to work with a good mindset every day. They want to improve. They want to play the way we play, and it helps you get through difficult times.”
The future for Columbus
For some players, this season with Columbus was a second chance and they’re looking forward to a bright future.
Winger Justin Meram spoke with tear-filled eyes following Columbus’ elimination.
“It is upsetting. It is tough. I am proud of this group,” said Meram, who started the year with Orlando City SC but returned to Columbus’ open arms in August after a difficult run in Florida. “I am so thankful that this organization brought me back. It sucks the way it ended, but it just wasn’t our night.
“We have fighters. We have a family in here. … This is it. We look back and regroup for another preseason.”
Forward Gyasi Zardes discovered a new life outside his comfort zone in the Ohio capital. After producing just two goals for the LA Galaxy in 2017, Zardes capitalized on a change of scenery and scored a career-high 19 goals. He was named MLS Comeback Player of the Year.
“It is very motivating for myself because I see the fruits of my labor paying off. This whole team in general is going to make me work even harder this offseason,” Zardes said. “I want a big year next year. I want to win an MLS Cup next year.”
Steffen was recognized with both the Goalkeeper of the Year honor and a spot of the MLS best XI. Steffen played 29 games this season for Crew SC with 10 shutouts and 66 saves. Making his USMNT debut in January, Steffen had six caps with the senior team and earned a nod as an MLS All Star.
English Championship side Bristol City reportedly offered more than $3 million for Steffen and Columbus turned it down, according to ESPN FC.
“I don’t know what is going to happen yet. We will see,” Steffen said after Sunday’s elimination. “It will be nice to get back and get my mind off soccer for a little bit.”
Steffen will start his offseason early after withdrawing from the USMNT friendlies against England Thursday at 3 p.m. ET at Wembley Stadium and against Italy on Nov. 20 at 2:45 p.m. ET in Genk, Belgium.
The question is, will another member of the Columbus organization soon join the USMNT?
The USMNT has been without a permanent head coach for more than a year. Dave Sarachan is acting as interim head coach, but it’s largely believed Berhalter is one of the top candidates for the job and the organization was waiting until the Crew’s season ended to make the announcement.
“I don’t think we need to talk about that right now,” Berhalter said after the final game against New York. He went on to talk about the Crew’s offseason and how “there has already been a lot of work identifying targets.”
“I think like any other offseason, you get better,” he said. “You identify positions you need to strength in and you get after it.”
Though some Crew SC personnel face uncertainty, the team itself is more secure than it has been all year.
Last month, MLS released a statement giving Columbus fans what they fought for all year — a future. The league announced Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and a Columbus-based investor group led by Pete Edwards, Jr., were in the later stages of negotiations to buy Crew SC and keep the team in Columbus.
So while the cast of characters that fill the pages of Crew SC’s next chapter remain unknown for now, there is confidence that chapter will come — with more to follow.