TAMPA, Fla. — Wil Trapp was one of the last to know.
The Columbus Crew midfielder has been with the U.S. men’s national team for the past week and on Friday, he was exchanging texts with club and international teammate Zack Steffen. The texts from Steffen were, as Trapp described them, “cryptic,” with a lot of question marks.
Unbeknownst to Trapp, about 1,000 miles to the north, news was emerging that an investor group had been formed that was interested in buying the rights to the Crew with the express purpose of keeping the team in Columbus. It was left to Steffen to fill Trapp in on the news.
“I finally saw [Steffen] and he said, ‘Have you seen the news?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?'” said Trapp. “So there was a lot of back and forth before we finally came together and saw this was a real thing going on.
“It was a lot of emotions, a lot of craziness wrapped up into one day.”
— Alex Fischer (@AlexFischerCBUS) October 13, 2018
It wrapped up a crazy year, too. It was this time a year ago that current owner Anthony Precourt divulged that he was exploring moving the team to Austin, Texas. At the time, he spoke of “parallel paths” in terms of seeing which municipality would build him a stadium first, but his actions have long indicated he preferred to get out of Ohio’s capital. Since then the proverbial anvil has been hanging over the head of just about everyone else associated with the team, from players to coaches to those working in the front office.
Trapp’s emotions were more fraught than most. In addition to being the team captain, he was born in Columbus, raised in nearby Gahanna, Ohio and progressed through the club’s academy. The Crew is the only professional team he’s known, having spent six seasons there. His impulse when the news broke on Friday was to revert to the ultimate defense mechanism of being a skeptic.
“The first thing when you’re being bombarded on social media is: How credible is it all? It’s unfortunate that you have to be looking at it from a very scrutinized lens all the time,” he said. “But then as the day went on, obviously there seemed to be some weight to the Haslam family and then Pete Edwards moving toward a potential buyout of the team.”
Even as Trapp spoke of the previous 24 hours, he still sounded cautious. Given that a deal isn’t completely done, his stance is utterly practical. He and his club teammates have gotten this far in the MLS season — one that sees them firmly in the playoff places — by avoiding the emotional rollercoaster. It would seem Trapp isn’t about to change that, although some optimism crept through.
“We can’t control anything as players,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotions wrapped into it of course, me being local, but it’s a day that was very wild in terms of the ups and downs of what was going on. The fans that have supported us all the way through this have fought exactly for this scenario that’s playing out. For the city of Columbus, keeping the team is a wonderful thing.”
So, if and when a deal gets done, Trapp and his teammates — along with the rest of those working in the Crew organization — will come out winners, especially with a ready-made rivalry vs. FC Cincinnati set to kick off next year. But who else won? And were there any losers?
In terms of the two cities, it’s fair to say both did given that the Crew is poised to stay in Columbus while Precourt still looks likely to get a team in Austin. But for Columbus, this will feel like the bigger victory if only because of what they stood to lose. The anxiety that accompanied the possibility of seeing their team leave town has now vanished, their future rife with possibilities instead.
The same is true in Austin, but its emotional investment isn’t near as heavy. Had the Crew remained at Austin’s expense, life would have carried on as it had before. Now they can look forward with optimism as well, although some hurdles remain.
Even Precourt, the apparent “villain” in all this, looks set to come out ahead, although he hasn’t crossed the finish line yet. When he spoke to ESPN FC last year about his intentions, it was clear he was done with Columbus. If he can manage to navigate his way through the remaining potholes as it relates to a stadium — one Austin City Council member spoke of hitting the “reset button” on the issue — then he will have gotten what he wanted, namely an exit from Columbus and an entrance into a city with no other professional sports teams. (While that is true at face value, the behemoth University of Texas is obviously there.) His reputation as the league’s Ebenezer Scrooge won’t affect him one bit.
Meanwhile, MLS comes off as both a winner and a loser. Let’s face it: this process was not handled well, at least at the outset. The league took a PR hit given that one of the stars on its crest stands for “Community” even as it appeared set to dump all over a city that is an MLS original. Yet the league also deserves some credit for finding a way out of this mess. It has managed to find an investor group with local ties through the Edwards family. That was really the problem all along, given that Precourt has no connections to the city and had one foot out the door from the moment he purchased the team. If a deal gets done, this is an investor group that can set down some deep roots.
Perhaps the biggest losers are the remaining expansion candidates, but only if you believe MLS is truly stopping at 28 teams as commissioner Don Garber has long stated. If 28 is the cap, there is now only one spot left for the likes of Sacramento, Phoenix, San Diego, Detroit and the newly revived St. Louis bid. Yet it’s difficult to believe that if there are compelling markets where the game can thrive — or is already thriving — that MLS will say no to adding more teams.
One definite loser is San Antonio. With the backing of Spurs Sports & Entertainment (owners of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs) and favorable demographics, Alamo City looked like contender for one of the four expansion slots that were available back in January of 2017. One of the selling points of the bid was its close proximity to Austin, just 80 miles to the north. With the Crew staying put and Precourt still intent on getting a team in Austin, that bid looks completely dead.
The biggest winners of all are the Columbus fans, the Little Engine That Could of the U.S. soccer community. Having watched the relocation of the San Jose Earthquakes back in 2005, I thought there was no chance the Crew’s proposed relocation could be stopped. But the fan group Save The Crew and the Columbus Partnership deserve immense credit for keeping the issue in the forefront and finding a way to get a deal done.