When the tweet appeared on his iPad and the love of his life suddenly became terrifyingly mortal, Morgan Hughes froze. His head spun. About 45 seconds later, he walked upstairs, past a collection of personal mementos, emblems of his relationship with the Columbus Crew. There was the signed 20th anniversary logo. The pictures of him and his buddies in Crew gear. The framed photo of the 2008 team celebrating its MLS Cup title at the White House.
And when he glanced at the array, a sickening thought crossed his mind: “It’s all gone. This is all antiques.”
It is difficult to comprehend the trauma that the relocation of a sports team can provoke. Two weeks after the trauma, or at least the possibility of it, struck Columbus, Crew fans look back on that Monday night and liken it to a family member being diagnosed with terminal illness, or taken away; to a bad breakup; to the night of the 2016 presidential election; even to death.
The following morning, Hughes says, “I was walking around like I was defeated. Like a part of me had been cut out. I was walking around seeing the world, but not being in it. It just was awful.”
But over the next 24 hours, one stage of grief gave way to the next. By Tuesday night, the mood had changed. On Wednesday, another tweet connected Hughes, one of the most active Crew supporters, and Tom Davis. The two had never met before. And neither realized that Davis, who attends several Crew games per season, had made a purchase that would enable a grassroots movement to grow from widespread anger, a hashtag and a small Twitter group message to a full-blown organization and a nationwide campaign unlike anything American soccer has ever seen.
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The funeral had originally been scheduled for Tuesday night at Hendocs, a local pub that doubles as headquarters for one of several Crew supporters groups. Less than 12 hours after club owner Anthony Precourt officially announced that he was considering relocation, fans had planned to gather; to hug; to cry; to reminisce; and to say goodbye to their team.
But after work, and before the funeral, Hughes was walking his dog when he received a Twitter direct message from former Crew broadcaster Chris Doran. The two friends exchanged condolences. Then Doran cut to the point with a message that contained one profane word and many heartfelt ones. “And I could see it in his response,” Doran recalls of Hughes. “He flipped almost 180 degrees.”
Hughes, who had been feeling depressed, says the message galvanized him. “We’re gonna fight this,” he thought. “I’m going to Hendocs, and I’m not leaving until everyone knows that there’s no goddamn funeral.”
Others felt similarly. The problem was that few had any idea how to fight it. “How do I, as a fan, have any say in this?” season ticket holder Darby Schaaf remembers wondering.
That’s where Davis came in. He, inspired by the Twitter hashtag #SaveTheCrew, had purchased savethecrew.com. He had used seven or eight years of self-taught coding skills to build a wonderfully simplistic website that asked for fans’ emails and their ideas. Meanwhile, Schaaf had compiled a list of Crew corporate sponsors. Others had begun to gather contact information for MLS executives and owners. Hughes brought Davis, Schaaf, his good friend John Zidar and three others into a Twitter group chat. They set out to make Davis’s site a hub for “the resistance.”
Less than 24 hours later, Zidar migrated the Twitter DM conversation to Slack, a popular messaging app used by many businesses, and the Save The Crew movement began to expand. The core group, comprising those seven DMers and leaders of Crew supporters clubs, recruited fellow fans with specific skills. They read dozens, and now hundreds, of emails from strangers offering to volunteer, and brought some of them into the fold.
“From the moment we set that up,” Zidar says of the Slack room, “things just started exploding really quick.”
It has now grown to 58 people, divided up into 12 teams after Zidar’s restructuring last Monday. The departments include everything from design and brand management to financing, from PR to business relations, from legal to governmental relations, from event marketing to merchandising, and more. The organization has had three in-person meetings, the last two involving around 20 people each. It has an active and growing social media presence. It now has advanced software and invaluable expertise at its disposal, and is operating with more efficiency by the day.
But just as essential has been the flood of volunteers. Because at its heart, this is still a grassroots movement. Dozens of people have emailed in to beef up and refine the group’s list of MLS and corporate contacts. Some have even reached out, on the condition of anonymity, with advice on how to get through to relevant higher-ups at their own companies. The offers of support and helping hands have been so numerous that Save The Crew organizers have compiled their own spreadsheet with names, skill sets and contact information for those willing to lend their spare time to the cause.
Members of the inner circle stress that the movement is not just about them; it is about Crew fans as a collective unit, and the natural passion and resolve that Precourt’s announcement has elicited. But all the emotion needed to be bottled up and funneled toward the correct targets in meaningful ways. That’s why Save The Crew was necessary.
And that’s what its leaders came together to do less than 48 hours after the news broke on that infamous Monday night.
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On the first Wednesday, Hughes and Zidar met at Endeavor Brewing Company, another local establishment. They were joined on a conference call by leaders of the club’s supporters groups: Donny Murray, Jason Murray, Ben Hoelzel, Dave Foust and a few others. The unofficial supporters conglomerate, if you will, known as the Nordecke, had not yet released a statement, or arranged any sort of public event. That was about to change.
First, though, they had to decide on a tone to set. That wasn’t easy. The call, Zidar says, “was a clusterf*** of people talking over each other. … It wasn’t productive, and it lasted way longer than it needed to.” After all, none of them, Schaaf points out, “have experience in how to save a team from relocation.”
But they eventually settled on positivity. Their statement, released that night, was a call to action. And the event they concocted was not a protest; it was a rally.
And it was quite remarkable, especially given the hurdles it only barely cleared to come together. The group had discussed staging a demonstration at Mapfre Stadium on the final day of the MLS regular season, while the team was on the road in New York. It instead decided on Columbus Commons, an accessible public space that could easily accommodate a gathering of a few dozen, perhaps even a hundred, on Sunday.
Pretty quickly, though, interest grew. The Commons reached out to nix the plan. So Save The Crew organizers made some calls, and settled on City Hall. Donny Murray rushed there after work on Friday to secure a permit. Others spread the word. Hughes and Zidar worked to line up speakers for the rally, which they now expected to include several hundred fans. But on Saturday, Hughes says he realized that Murray had gotten the permit for the wrong date. “Let’s say there was a paperwork error,” Murray admits, sheepishly.
But somehow the rally came together. Steve Sirk, a Columbus-based writer, added a couple former Crew players to the lineup of speakers at around 11:30 on Saturday night. Black-and-gold-clad fans drove hours to be there Sunday morning. The estimated attendance was 2,000, beyond the wildest expectations of organizers.
It was the biggest gathering of the Save The Crew movement thus far, and in many ways the most memorable moment. But it wasn’t the only remarkable display of support on that Sunday. And it might not have even been the most significant.
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The Save The Crew movement is special because of the 58 on the inside, but also because it extends beyond them. It is special because of the 2,000 at City Hall, but also because it extends beyond them. It is special because it has swept up the American soccer community and stimulated it to fight for a common cause. Because, as the Nordecke statement read, “If they can do this to Columbus, they can do this to any team.”
After the 2,000 Ohioans dispersed on that Sunday afternoon, Crew–related banners or signs popped up at at least 10 of the 11 MLS stadiums hosting Decision Day matches. They have appeared at NFL, NHL, and USL games, and could soon appear overseas. They represent a sentiment that has materialized into public statements from other supporters groups, into vocal opposition to Precourt in other markets, and into widespread support for the resistance.
When the Crew traveled to Atlanta for their Knockout Round playoff match on Thursday, the movement came along with them. Hoelzel, part of the Nordecke inner circle, made the trip along with fellow diehards, and brought a big Save The Crew banner.
But the movement was also already there. According to Hoelzel, an Atlanta fan had made 400 yellow armbands that read, “Beat the Crew, save the Crew.” Atlanta United supporters had reached out to their Columbus counterparts right after the matchup was set, and welcomed Hoelzel’s banner at their tailgate. Without Hoelzel’s knowledge, they took the banner and displayed it front and center on their march to the stadium. “I can’t tell you what that meant to me,” Hoelzel says.
After two weeks of unrelenting energy and commitment, of temporarily discarded personal lives and vacation days off work, of long nights and early mornings, many of the movement’s organizers are exhausted. But it’s moments like that one in Atlanta that sustain them. It’s the downtown Columbus buildings lit up in gold. It’s the 42,000 unique website visitors in two weeks, and the 3,750 that have signed up for emails. It’s the official resolution of support from the City Council after Hughes and Murray had spoken in front of it last week.
It’s the brewery that stayed open after hours to provide space for tifo painting. It’s the volunteers who showed up at 6 a.m. the next morning in rain and sleet to garner national visibility on ESPN’s College GameDay. And of course, it’s the epic win in Atlanta that gave Columbus its first home game since the shocking news, Tuesday night in the conference semis against New York City FC.
But “it’s not just Columbus,” Hoelzel later continues. “Other supporters get it. They understand the history, they understand the importance, they understand the stability and the fairness in it all. Soccer is supposed to be different [than other American sports]. To supporters it is different. … And it’s not just people in Columbus who are gonna fight to keep it different. It’s gonna be the entire U.S. soccer community.”
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.