This post is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Or not. It was supposed to be, but apparently I failed. Maybe the Crew really should be moved...
Another playoff run, another Columbus disappointment, and I don't mean on the field. Despite having what has been the best team in Major League Soccer over the last two seasons, Columbus fans still fail to show up in big numbers at Crew Stadium. Last night, only 10,109 could be bothered to watch the men in yellow go down to Real Salt Lake. Lest you think this is an aberration, brought on by the opponent (no one ever accused RSL of being a big draw) or the day of the week, note that during last year's run to the Cup final, Columbus only averaged 13,000 between two home matches.
That, my friends, is what we call "not good enough".
Perhaps you're inclined to put the onus of poor attendance on Hunt Sports Group, the owners of the Crew and proprietors of one of the league's other poor attendance performers, FC Dallas. Unfortunately, HSG can't be used as an excuse. Americans love a winner; it's proven, it's true, and it generally means people show up to partake in the glory. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Crew have been winners in recent years. Americans love a winner?
I guess it the axiom doesn't apply in good old C'bus.
Why that might be, I have no idea. It doesn't make sense to me that metropolitan area with a population of 1.7 million (good for 32nd in the country) can't provide enough fans to fill a stadium with a capacity of 22,555. The Crew's regular-season average over the last two years is less than 15,000. Sure, Columbus is college football town. Sure, it's not a city with a large Hispanic population that could augment their soccer fan base. Sure, the game is a tough sell in the Midwest, a part of the country dominated by American football and college basketball. Still, none of those represent reasonable excuses for why the Crew can't draw a decent crowd.
Crew Stadium itself is a landmark of American soccer, the first dedicated venue for the sport in the United States built in the modern era. It will always be viewed as representative of the rise of soccer here, a monument to the builders of MLS and their dedication to the sport. But that history, and that status as both an MLS first and as a reliable home for the US National Team, should not keep the league from doing what is necessary. Major League Soccer just isn't working in Columbus, Ohio. Believe it or not, it's time to move the Crew.
Don't be so shocked. MLS has shown the necessary callousness in the past when it was clear a market wasn't cutting it. Yes, they went back to San Jose despite evidence that the place was a deathbed for stadium deals. Yes, they went into Salt Lake City before Toronto, though that hasn't worked out so poorly. But they killed the Florida teams, as they should have, and have shown good foresight with expansion teams since. Forget Crew Stadium; if the Crew can't draw respectable crowds, why should they remain in Columbus?
Back in the summer, when DC United was going through stadium plan travails, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said what needed to be said to the local governments of the region: Find a place for United, or the league might find it necessary to move the team. DC United is one of the flagship franchises in MLS, and yet they weren't deemed untouchable from the distasteful step of moving clubs like chess pieces, to homes that will both properly appreciate them and maximize the league's bottom line. United's situation is clearly different than that of Columbus, and yet somehow they're related; original MLS teams, each with issues in their markets, whose future in those markets should not be assured.
Anathema? I don't think so.
Luckily enough, there's a market in North America ready and willing to accept a Major League Soccer team: Montreal. There's a stadium (ready to be expanded), an owner who could take the Crew off the hands of the Hunt Sports Group (who would be better off focusing on one club), and a fan base ready to show up. "Perfect" doesn't begin to describe it.
Montreal is an MLS market waiting to happen. The city's eventual entry into the league is seen as a foregone conclusion, and the people there have proved that they'll fill any stadium presented to them. Stade Saputo, sold out on a regular if not consistent basis? Done. Olympic Stadium, with 50,000+ for a CONCACAF Champions League game? Done. It's a matter of simple math; Montreal offers fans willing to spend their hard earned money on soccer while Columbus continues to prove that winner or not, they just won't come out.
Canada is the new frontier for Major League Soccer. A whole other country connected to the United States by cultural links, common language (mostly), and sporting history, the Great White North has much to offer as place to grow the game. I may be American and proud of it, but even a flag-waving, red-white-and-blue-bleeding, son-of-a-serviceman like me can't deny that for MLS to be successful, and therefore for soccer to become a prominent sport in this part of the world, it must go where it's wanted. And it's wanted in Montreal.
I don't think we can say the same for Columbus.
There are a lot of very good, very passionate, Crew fans. The beauty of the Nordecke and the movement that created it shouldn't be dismissed. But a few thousand hardcore supporters just can't make a soccer club, no matter how rabid they are. Columbus had its shot, and I guess you could call it a decent fourteen year run; but it's better to get out too early than too late, and all of those empty seats at Crew Stadium during a crucial playoff match only confirms that the time to get out is now.
MLS, make it happen. Send the yellow boys north, where you have an owner and a city ready to embrace them.
*UPDATE 11/10* Since this still seems to be getting some attention, I should probably point you in the direction of the follow up post as well.