Excitement on the pitch and in the stands in Crew's return to Columbus
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Morgan Hughes spent Sunday afternoon picking up and organizing banners that the Save The Crew crew deployed during College GameDay in Columbus, Ohio. The black and gold color scheme and logo of the Major League Soccer team that owner Anthony Precourt wants to move to Austin, Texas, was everywhere during the broadcast, clearly visible to the audience watching at home.
On Tuesday night, those banners, created from the 1,200 yards of fabric Hughes purchased soon after the news of the potential move broke, will get another life when the Crew host New York City FC at MAPFRE Stadium (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). The fixture represents the best opportunity yet for the Save The Crew movement to gain national viability, and they aren't going to let it go to waste. There's no time to make a tifo -- Columbus reached the Eastern Conference semifinal only after a stirring penalty shootout win over favored Atlanta United on Thursday -- but the supporters will be loud and obvious.
"We're going to have a giant section of individual pieces of support," Hughes said. "It's going to be crazy."
Of course, there's also the matter of the game. It will be the first time the Crew have hosted a match since a 2-0 victory over D.C. United on Sept. 30. They've been unbeaten for longer, an 11-match run that has seen manager Gregg Berhalter's club achieve one of their main objectives.
"We've been fighting for the last two months for this: a home playoff game," Josh Williams, a center-back whose developing partnership with Jonathan Mensah has keyed the run, said. "We fought, scratched and clawed our way for this, and it's here now. All the guys are ready."
While the team is aware of Save The Crew, they downplayed its significance.
"It's ebbed away quite a bit, just because we have to focus on the games," said Wil Trapp, who emerged as the Crew's leader this year despite being 24. "I know when you look at College GameDay on Saturday, there's still a huge undercurrent within the Columbus community with Save The Crew being a big deal. When we've traveled, you see it in Atlanta, you see it in New York City. It's pretty special."
The playoffs, after all, are motivation enough to play hard.
"We don't pay attention to [Save The Crew] at all," knockout-round hero goalkeeper Zack Steffen said. "That's more for the fans and the business side. We're professionals. We come out here and work hard in training, and we're excited to get out there in front of our fans. I think they are going to show out."
Steffen, Williams, Mensah and the rest of the Crew defense will have a long night battling David Villa and NYCFC's potent attack. While the visitors experienced a bit of a power outage, finishing 1-2-4 and tallying just nine goals in their final nine matches after putting in nearly two goals a game during the season's opening 25 fixtures, Patrick Vieira's side can pack a punch.
During a 2-2 Decision Day draw between the two teams -- NYCFC's last competitive match -- Villa put an MLS-career-high six shots on net and found the back of the net twice. Only a stoppage-time penalty kick save from (who else?) Steffen let the Crew escape Citi Field with a point.
The first leg of conference semifinals can be dull -- see Sunday night's brutal 0-0 slog between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders -- but Tuesday night's match could be a wide-open affair. The Crew and NYCFC have scored 32 goals in seven previous meetings, and neither team has held the other scoreless for an entire 90 minutes.
Berhalter doesn't anticipate his club coming out tentatively. "I'm not sure it's in our DNA to be conservative," the manager said. "We have a good home record, a strong home record, and we'd like to take advantage of that."
Trapp thinks he and his teammates will follow their coach's instructions. "These playoff games are so much about the aggressiveness and the intensity from the beginning and then allowing that to last throughout the entire 90 minutes," he said.
One thing that might slow the pace of play is the weather. The forecast calls for a temperature in the high 30s at kickoff Tuesday night. At least one player, however, isn't fazed by the low mercury.
"It's going to be freezing, but you always want to be playing this time of year," Steffen said.
The fans will be cold, but they'll be there. And the team recognizes and appreciates that support and hopes to give back.
"We're so excited to play in front of them," Berhalter said. "We're focused on trying to keep going for the fans, to keep this season going, to raise their spirits a little bit."
After a difficult month in which they learned their team might be taken, the diehards could use the morale boost.
"The Crew is pretty much my whole life," Hughes said.
If his beloved team gives a strong performance Tuesday night, they'll set themselves up to upset NYCFC and give the Save The Crew crew a chance to use their banners during the conference finals, too.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.