As we celebrate the last game at RFK Stadium and D.C. United's impending move to Audi Field, current events ask us to take a look at where we've been. I became a fan of Major League Soccer in 2010, after having starting to follow the US men's national team in 2008. At that time, I was a grad student in North Carolina, and so there wasn't a Major League Soccer team directly available to me.
I was torn between supporting the team nearest to me, and nearest to the state that to which I was probably moving, and supporting the team from my home state: D.C. United and Columbus Crew SC, respectively. The Crew had just won MLS Cup in 2008 and the Supporter's Shield in 2008, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto was a ton a fun to play on Fifa (as well as to watch in real life).
There was also a very real concern that I didn't want to talk about but which was lurking in my mind: D.C. United had a very real chance to be moved.
At that point in time, a stadium for United seemed impossible, and rumors of Baltimore or further were running rampant. The team was in existential crisis, and I didn't know if to support a team that could be gone in two years. But I did it anyways, and here I am today having made great friends and had great times along the way. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
But now our friends in Columbus are in their own existential crisis, even worse than anything United faced. The Crew would be another of the original 1996 teams to move, rebrand, or fold: only half are still with us in the same form they were then, with the Tampa Bay Mutiny having folded, the San Jose Clash having moved to Houston and been reborn, and the Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wiz, and the New York/New Jersey MetroStars having all gone through significant rebranding.
The Crew are also one of the league’s classic success stories, having come up in a smaller market with a passionate owner who kept the entire league alive for awhile; without Lamar Hunt owning three team from 2003 to 2006, the league could have easily failed. Hunt also built, out of his own pocket, the first MLS soccer specific stadium, which is also an iconic part of USMNT lore. Anthony Precourt is willing to sell the legacy for a cheap buck.
Precourt has local investors who want to buy the team to keep it there, but he doesn't care. He has a team that is successful and self-sustaining and he's throwing it away for the unknown in Austin. He is playing with his father’s money and doesn’t care about the consequences. Austin has its own soccer history, one that includes teams folding and a team being snatched away from them in much the same way Precourt wants to snatch away the Crew. The Austin Aztex moved to Orlando after the 2010 USL Pro season in a move that is eerily similar to what is happening seven years later:
Less than an hour before the news conference in Orlando, Rawlins issued a news release saying the team had tried to "broaden the investment base" for the Aztex in the past year, but that proved "extremely difficult give the economic climate. Our first and overriding preference was always to keep the Aztex in Austin. But after we exhausted all our options, this has not proven possible."
Matthew Gray, the leader of Chantico's Army, an Aztex fan support group , said they were unaware the team was in financial trouble. Gray said that after he received an anonymous e-mail a month ago about a possible move to Orlando, he approached a team official for clarification. Gray said he was told no such move was planned.
"We had no idea that the Aztex were in such dire financial straits," Gray said. "Not once did we get a notification that if (the Aztex) were not able to raise attendance a certain amount then (they) were in danger of moving."
People will say that this is all a business and this is the way that businesses operate. But we, the consumers, don’t have to accept that mantra. The league has forced an owner to sell in the past, and they could find a way to do it again if they wanted to.
I hope we can find a way to save the Crew. Because it could have happened to us.