Brian McBride, Columbus, and the Crew

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McBride Freekick cover 1997 (2)Brian McBride is a U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer. He’s a World Cup hero, had a successful stay in the English Premier League, and is a studio analyst for ESPN FC. He’s a devoted husband and father, been immortalized as a Lego statue, and a man who has had the bones in his face broken more than any other person I know.

Brian McBride is many things, and luckily for Central Ohio, one of them is Columbus Crew legend.

Now he’s on the phone to talk about his deep love for the club, the city, and its people.

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McBride’s only knowledge of Columbus prior to arriving in 1996 was that it was the home of Ohio State University. Upon his being drafted by the Crew with the #1 overall pick in the inaugural MLS draft, McBride’s mom excitedly told him, “Oh my God, the Berwangers are there!”

During McBride’s younger years, the Berwangers were neighbors and family friends in Illinois. Coincidentally, when McBride went to college at Saint Louis University, the Berwangers happened be living in St. Louis at the time. Every Sunday while he was away at school, the friends that McBride refers to as “Mr. & Mrs. B” would invite him over for a home-cooked meal. Amazingly enough, the Berwangers were living in Columbus when McBride got a new professional home. Mr. & Mrs. B made for the perfect welcoming committee.

“They were from the area and had some roots there, so it was nice to talk to them and find out about the city,” McBride says from his home in Chicago. “I was excited about the soccer side of things, but Columbus definitely seemed like a good fit for me and my personality.”

More like a perfect fit. McBride became the first prominent professional athlete in the city and his star was born on day one. The evening of April 13, 1996, McBride scored the first goal ever tallied by a Crew player—the first goal in club history was an own-goal by D.C. United’s Thor Lee—and then he followed it up with the goal of a lifetime. Columbus goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi punted the ball from the edge of the Crew’s 18-yard box. McBride jumped into the air and popped the ball forward with his head. He then ran onto the ball and volleyed into the net. The only time the ball touched the ground was the bounce it took just short of the goal line. It’s as astonishing a goal as one will ever see and it made McBride a local legend before the first game was even over.

“It was one of those things where Bo could kick it so far,” McBride says. “I knew it was one man to beat, and it came off my head and I knew it was going to be in the air for me to get to it and volley it. Of course, thinking through the process—I can do this! I can do this!—and just trying to strike it, but not fully powered, but just making sure I hit it. As soon as it went in, I knew I’d never score a goal like that again.”

McBride stresses the volley was not premeditated. It just worked out that way and was the perfect capper to a perfect night.

“From the start, and getting another goal before that, and the atmosphere, and the crowd, and then to score a goal that I knew I was never going to be able to score again, I think was just mind-blowing to me. It was all happening just like that.”

Sparked by that legendary debut, McBride scored 17 goals that season and became a local celebrity and the face of the franchise. He was recognized and respected all around town.

“Columbus was such a friendly, personable place for me to begin my career,” he says. “It allowed me to grow. You’re talking about fame, but I was not very famous. It was a gradual thing that happened. Even now, I’m not very famous, but playing for the Crew and then me getting a chance to be a part of the community, and to do things charitably, and just the support that the people not even involved in soccer gave the Crew really facilitated all that.”

McBride cites Autograph Alley and the easy accessibility that fans had to the players in those early days as a major factor in the popularity that he and the team experienced.

“Now it’s different, of course, because it’s more difficult to spend time with the players,” he says. “You understand because as the league gets bigger, you have to take more precautions, but back then, you actually had a personal relationship with the supporters. You would see them after every game. It was more of a family feel.”

Despite his recognition around town and the easy access that everyone had to the future Hall of Famer, he never had any issues with the public. Columbus was cool like that.

“Every person that I met that had some sort of idea who I was, they were all genuinely nice people,” he says. “It wasn’t like people were star-crazed. That never really happened to me. There were a few odds and ends, but for the most part, it was like a friendship. You always felt like you were a part of something.”

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McBride 1998 USOC
McBride in the 1998 U.S. Open Cup Final, a heartbreaking 2-1 extra time loss to the Fire. (Photo by Matt Bernhardt)

McBride was part of so many very good Crew teams that couldn’t quite get over the hump. They lost four conference finals and also lost a heartbreaking U.S. Open Cup final in Chicago in 1998. Finally, in 2002, the Crew beat the LA Galaxy, 1-0, to win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It meant a lot to the players themselves, but McBride is far from the only player to express that part of the thrill was winning it for Lamar Hunt.

“It was an awesome night,” he says. “It’s one of those things where you’d been wanting to win something for so long, and to know that the trophy was named after Lamar, who everybody just loved. For me, it was even more special in a sense because I got to develop a friendship with Lamar. It wasn’t like we talked on the phone or anything, but he was such a sweet person. He actually sought out my family at the World Cup and wanted to take a picture with them. You hear all of these crazy stories that (owners) don’t care about the players themselves and it’s all about the return (on investment) and winning things, and certainly that’s true to a certain extent, but there are owners who care about each individual and care about the welfare of the team and the group. Lamar always came across like that. To win that, it was great to finally bring home some silverware to the club. To have Lamar there was even better.”

Crew 2002 US Open Cup
The Crew celebrate with Lamar Hunt in 2002. (Photo by Greg Bartram)

McBride says the Crew’s family feel started with Lamar Hunt and his family, then worked its way through the front office and coaches like Tom Fitzgerald and Greg Andrulis, and then into the locker room itself, where families like the McBrides, Clarks, Maisonneuves, and Yeagleys were inseparable.

“There was something there that was deeper than soccer,” he says, “and it translated on the field and in the community.”

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During McBride’s eight seasons in Columbus, he lived in four parts of town. He started in Dublin near Tuttle Mall, then moved to German Village, followed by Westerville, and then New Albany.

“It’s funny, because every place I went to, it seemed even more perfect,” he says.

In Dublin, he and roommate Shane Battelle used to pop into nearby restaurants. Not making much money at the time, they enjoyed being able to walk to places for a decent meal. In German Village, McBride was one of the youngest residents in his neighborhood and befriended a variety of people, plus he enjoyed being able to ride his bike anywhere he wanted to go. In Westerville, he lived on a golf course and spent his free time on the links.

McBride’s wife, Dina, is also from Chicago. It’s where they met when McBride was recuperating from blood clots. Theirs was a quick and intense courtship, and he soon invited Dina and her two daughters to join him in Columbus. This prompted the move to New Albany, where they relished the family life.

“I didn’t need to talk her into it,” he says. “When the conversation came up, I said, ‘I’d love for you guys to come and live with me there.’ She was like, ‘Columbus?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to love it.’ We visited a few times before we made the full move and she loved it. It’s a great Midwest city. It’s like a mini Chicago in the sense that there is plenty to do and great food, but it’s also quieter and more family-oriented. It was perfect for us.

“It’s funny, because I know a lot of people were upset when I didn’t come back to Columbus, but there’s very few places, in fact there are only two places I’d consider home. And there was a period for sure where I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in Columbus. My wife was very much happy to do that, and until the England thing came up, we were putting down roots that were real roots and we still feel them today.”

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The “England thing” was a successful stint at Fulham in the English Premier League. McBride became as beloved in parts of London as he had been in Columbus. In fact, the stadium pub at Craven Cottage is named McBride’s in his honor. In early 2007, however, McBride was in the final months of his Fulham contract. Sigi Schmid’s Crew rebuild was underway and Columbus made a significant offer to make McBride the first Designated Player in Crew history. He thought for sure that he was coming home. His English agent wanted him to hold off an any decision until the summer transfer window as there would be offers from other English clubs. McBride, however, knew that he either wanted to stay at Fulham or come home to Columbus. He owed it to the Crew to make a decision as soon as possible, so he went to the chief executive at Fulham and said he’d be happy to stay at Fulham, but needed a contract right away at a specific dollar amount or he was committing to Columbus early. Much to his surprise, the immediate assurance in that meeting was, “You got it.” McBride stayed another season at Fulham and the Crew moved on to make other acquisitions in 2007, such as Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno.

At the time, some fans thought McBride merely used the Crew for leverage with Fulham, but his interest in coming home was sincere and he thought it was going to happen. Besides, it all worked out well in the end for Columbus.

“Now I tell everyone, ‘Listen, you got a championship!’” he says with a laugh.

McBride Treason
McBride was a wanted man in the 2008 playoffs when he played for the rival Chicago Fire. Oh for the days when Crew treason merely meant playing for a rival, not the shady and shameless theft of the club. (Photo by Greg Bartram)

When his Fulham contract expired in the summer of 2008, he signed with his hometown Chicago Fire. That November, in Columbus, the Midwestern rivals would meet in the 2008 Eastern Conference Final. McBride was booed and greeted with a giant “WANTED” poster for treason. He scored the go-ahead goal, but the Crew eventually prevailed 2-1.

What I remember that night was how polite and engaging McBride was in the tunnel and in the locker room after the game. He had suffered another crushing conference finals loss after already suffering through four with the Crew, and yet he went out of his way to stay positive and cheerfully talk to as many familiar Columbus people as possible. The fan reaction did not upset him.

“I totally got it,” he says now. “I held no grudge. In fact, after the playoff game that we lost in Columbus, walking off the field, and I was probably one of the last players off the field, down the tunnel comes Clark Hunt and his family. It was very nice to be able to thank him for everything and to wish him the best of luck. I told him, ‘Listen, now you need to go on and win the final.’ And you guys did. So there were never any hard feelings. Certainly there was a bit of surprise at how much vitriol there was, but I understand. Fans are fans.”

The decision to sign with the Fire had nothing to do with money. In fact, he made far less with the Fire than he had been offered by the Crew a year earlier. Dina’s father had heart issues and they wanted their daughters to be able to spend time with family.

“Getting the opportunity to be around her parents, and her dad had heart surgery and has since passed, being able to spend those years here with him and having our kids be able to see their grandparents all the time was something that we wanted for our kids,” he says. “It was a family decision. Thankfully, deep down inside, I think everybody realized it was a family decision and not that we didn’t want to come back to Columbus. We were very, very close to coming back to Columbus.”

In fact, they did come back to Columbus. In July of 2011, Brian, Dina, and their three daughters stood on the field as McBride became the very first inductee into the Crew’s Circle of Honor. It was a fitting reward for the Crew’s first star and a foundational pillar of the club. It was also the perfect opportunity for McBride and the Columbus fans to re-embrace one another after his stint with the loathsome Fire.

“I got a chance to celebrate with them when I retired, so that was fun,” he says. “I’m very thankful for that, believe me. The last thing I want to do is be scarred or not be as strong of a link as I felt it was.”

It was.

McBride Nordecke
McBride with the Nordecke in 2011 after becoming the first inductee into the Crew’s Circle of Honor. (Photo by Sam Fahmi)

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McBride Nordecke 2015
McBride with Crew fans during Legends weekend in 2015. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

Discussing his return to MLS with the Fire makes me think back to what he told the fans in 2015 when he returned as part of the Legends weekend celebrating 20 seasons of Crew soccer. At a fan forum held on the plaza, here’s what McBride had to say about his brief time as a Crew villain…

“I know there was a period where I wasn’t very liked. Yes, I remember the banner. But it always felt like home. It wasn’t where I grew up, but it felt like home. It still does when we come back….but even back when you hated me, I always loved (Columbus) and I loved you. Times change, but it’s a place where I learned to be a man. It’s a place where I learned all of my feelings about what is important in life were shown true.”

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What’s important in life varies from person to person. Some, like McBride, value family and community. Others pay lip service to those ideals while conspiring to destroy them.

“It’s very painful to see what is happening now,” McBride says as Anthony Precourt’s still yet-to-be-finalized plan to relocate the club to Austin drags into its 11th coldly-administered month.

“My initial reaction was, ‘WHY?’ I didn’t understand it,” he says. “I was taken by surprise, for sure. I started making a few phone calls trying to find out what was going on and what’s the real reason. After a few phone calls, I learned that there was a lot more stuff going on behind the scenes before they let any of the fans know. That, I think, was very poorly handled. It didn’t give Columbus or the fans ownership that was trying to help keep the Crew there. Very honestly, I said this to a member of senior management, ‘You handled this poorly. If you really had any interest in staying, you should have gone to the fan group and presented all of your theories that you need to leave, and then give them a year to make it right, to make it better, to bring more dollars in. Make sure the fans really get a chance to support the club and that it’s obvious that ownership wants to be there. When they don’t do that, it seems like they already made their mind up, and that’s why you’re not going to get any support. Everybody understand that it’s a business, but if you handle your business by walking away from the group that supports you and don’t give them a chance to support you, why would you expect them to support you when you say they have a year left but we’re already moving on? It doesn’t many any sense to me.’ I said, ’It’s wrong and you definitely handled it poorly.’”

The size, scope, and success of the #SaveTheCrew movement underscores McBride’s point. I suggest that it’s an organization that could have been a huge asset to an ownership group that honestly cared about Columbus, rather than being considered a relocation-thwarting thorn in Precourt’s side.

“That’s exactly on point,” he says. “You see how big the movement has gotten.”

McBride’s favorite #SaveTheCrew moment occurred out of the blue from the comfort of home. The last thing he expected when he settled in to watch some golf one day in May was to see a pro golfer wearing a #SaveTheCrew hat out on the course. PGA tour member Jason Dufner is a Cleveland native who wanted to show some support for Columbus after living through the horrors of a franchise relocation when the original Browns moved to Baltimore.

“When Dufner is wearing the hat at the Memorial Tournament, I loved it,” McBride says. “That was huge. I’m watching the Golf Channel and then I see ‘Save the Crew’ and I was like, ‘That is awesome!’ It just shows the tradition that our fans have.”

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McBride will soon be back in Columbus. Former teammate Kyle Martino is arranging an alumni event to coincide with the season finale on October 28. (Full details will be released at a later date.)

Boys Are Back in Town
Kyle Martino tweeted this notice for the alumni event he is organizing for the final home game of the regular season. McBride is a confirmed attendee for the event.

“It’s already on the calendar,” McBride says. “I will be there. I think it’s a great way to thank the fans. Some of the guys (who will be attending) weren’t even there that long, but they feel that way about the city. And then look at the guys that stuck around. I mean, Billy Thompson. [Note: California native Thompson is currently technical director at local club Ohio Premier.] I remember we had a lot of California guys. These guys were all like, ‘Oh my God! This weather is freezing! There’s no way I’m not getting out of here the second my contract is up!’ Fast forward four or five years later, everybody was still there. Some of the guys eventually got jobs elsewhere, but when they retired, they weren’t going back to Cali. That’s what the city made us feel.”

For McBride, the Martino-led alumni event is just another way to further the #SaveTheCrew cause by not only appreciating the fans, but by showing the powers that be that Columbus and the Crew have deep meaning in people’s hearts and should stay on the MLS map.

“It’s just a small way for us to give back and say thank you, and in the same vein, to try and spur a new solution in Columbus.”

22 years ago, the fans celebrated McBride’s audacious goal in the first Crew game ever played. Now the roles are reversed as the Columbus supporters aim for an audacious goal of their own—to #SaveTheCrew.

Their Crew.

The city’s Crew.

And yes, wholeheartedly, Brian McBride’s Crew.

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Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
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