Potential relocation has Columbus Crew rebuilding -- but not retreating
It is tempting to prematurely mourn the demise of Columbus Crew SC.
Although nothing is yet set in stone, owner Anthony Precourt has been open -- some might say obstinate -- about his desire to move the club to Austin, Texas, starting with the 2019 season. Given the opportunity to push back against the potential franchise relocation at his State of the League address back in December, commissioner Don Garber instead said MLS was "supportive" of Precourt's exploratory efforts within the Texas state capital.
Attackers Ola Kamara and Justin Meram, Columbus' top two goal scorers last year, both requested trades this winter, with each reportedly citing the club's uncertain future as part of the reason why. Both were obliged: Meram was dealt to Orlando City and Kamara to the LA Galaxy in exchange for forward Gyasi Zardes and targeted allocation money.
With all that murkiness hovering overhead, this season could be a trying one -- reminiscent of when the NBA's SuperSonics' final campaign in Seattle was sunk by their impending move to Oklahoma City and the resulting fan apathy was pointed to as justification for the relocation itself.
And yet it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom in central Ohio when Columbus kicks off its season against defending champion Toronto FC on March 3 at BMO Field. The Crew will miss the influence of Kamara and Meram, to be sure, but it retains the bulk of the roster that reached the MLS Eastern Conference finals a season ago.
Columbus put a real scare into Toronto once there, too, and looked to be edging toward a Cup final on home turf before TFC's Jozy Altidore struck on the counterattack in the second half of leg two.
Columbus also still has Gregg Berhalter, one of the very brightest minds in MLS. His reputation was only burnished by his team's deep playoff run amid swirling rumors of Precourt's amorous Austin advances, and the coach's proactive, attack-minded system has never been overly dependent on only a handful of difference-makers.
"I think we've talked enough about the two departures," Berhalter said of Kamara and Meram in a recent phone interview with ESPN FC. "We were focused on doing two deals that made the team better, and I think we did that."
He also dismissed the notion that Columbus might struggle to attract fresh talent given that nobody knows for sure where the franchise will be in a year's time.
"We haven't faced those challenges," said Berhalter, who also serves as sporting director. "Almost every person I've spoke to about coming to the club wanted to join us for the right reasons."
Berhalter has a vested interest in framing it that way, of course, but his overall sentiment rings true. In an industry in which players are aware they can be traded or released at any time, they're used to dealing with an element of uncertainty. Some might blanch at the idea of having to uproot their lives at the end of this season, but more than a few of them have already done so at least a time or two in their careers.
"You have some players who are signing because of the city, or because of the coach, or because they're filling a role," said Richard Motzkin of the Wasserman Group, whose agency represents Zardes and Crew captain Wil Trapp, among others. "For some people, for a small percentage of players, the uncertainly would weigh in. But ultimately if all the other boxes are checked, and it's a good professional opportunity, ultimately that's going to outweigh the other considerations."
And so Berhalter and company have gone about the business of quietly moving on from Kamara and Meram, the rebuild something of a reprieve from all the open questions waiting outside the closed doors of club headquarters.
"This is something that we really can't control," Berhalter said. "Our goal is to give the fans the best experience on the field as possible. ... Almost for a man, the guys are motivated. They were motivated to get back at it. The mindset from the players has been terrific."
The Crew has already proved once that it could turn negative energy into a positive motivational force. Whether it can do so again -- and whether it can maintain that level of defiance over the course of the eight-month regular season -- could go a long way toward shaping the top half of the East.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.