Tom Presthus won the 1999 MLS Cup with D.C. United, but he has been making it up to Columbus ever since. He spent 2000-2003 playing for the Crew, including being a member of the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship squad, and has stayed in Central Ohio with his wife, Melissa, and their three sons ever since his retirement from soccer. Two of his sons play in the Crew’s academy, where Presthus also coaches the goalkeepers.
When I talked to Presthus the Saturday after the 100% official announcement that the Crew had been saved, we embarked on a 45-minute conversation that touched on all manner of topics relating to the relocation saga from his unique perspective as a Crew alum, Crew season ticket holder, Crew academy parent, Crew academy coach, and Crew Foundation board member. I’m presenting the conversation here in Q & A format, which, mercifully, is much more “A” than “Q.”
“You know us goalkeepers,” Presthus said when we were done. “We like to talk. And blame other people. It’s our M.O.”
This is a long read, but I hope you’ll take the time.
What was it like for you over the course of the 15-month ordeal before the Crew were 100% officially saved?
That in itself, the getting closer and closer and not wanting to get too high that this was actually going to happen, and honestly, my wife jokes about it because I’ve wanted to be optimistic but I’ve been pretty pessimistic the entire time. I was trying to be real. I was trying to understand that this is how sports works in the United States. This wouldn’t be the first time that an owner picked up a team and moved it to another city. It’s something that happens. Nobody wants it to happen to their team, but it happens.
It was extremely emotional in our family. A little different than most of the guys, but I’ve stayed extremely close to the organization since I retired. I joke that I probably wear more Crew stuff now on a weekly basis than I did when I played. As a family, we have bags and bags of Crew stuff. I have three boys, and for the most part, the only club they have ever played for is the Columbus Crew. Right now, I have two that play for the academy, I have one I coach with Sporting Columbus, and I coach the goalkeepers at the academy. It’s a huge part of our life. Not only from that perspective, but we’re big fans. And our friends are fans. So when we get done with practice or we get done with our games, we go out to the Rusty Bucket and watch the games as a family. When we’re home, the academy games are tailored around the first team schedule, so we typically go to a majority of the home games. I’m a season ticket holder. I’m on the Crew Foundation board. I talk to Gregg (Berhalter.) I talk to Pat (Onstad.) I talk to Josh Wolff. I talk to Pete (Edwards.)
So when it was first announced, I thought, “Oh god, our world just changed significantly.” As a family, Melissa and I chose to stay here after I got done playing soccer because we really like Columbus. We really liked it as a city, but another aspect is that we have kids who are playing soccer and we wanted them to be in an environment where, if they choose to continue to play, they can watch a professional game and go to a professional game because that is a great way to develop when you’re around it. So to think that that was going to get pulled away… more importantly, they are in the development academy and we see the advantages of kids that are serious about soccer and their development. Yes, it’s an investment from owner, so in that sense, I’m kind of torn. I’m pissed off it can get taken away but I’m grateful for the opportunities that my kids have been given to this point as well.
So it was a really emotional 15 months for us. Not only is the team leaving and we won’t have that, which is a really big and important part of our life in terms of watching games and being fans, but also we have kids who want to excel at this sport and part of that is playing in a professional development academy setting, so what do we do for them? How do we continue to provide them with the opportunities that they’ve had to this point? It was challenging. There were a lot of times where you want to have faith because there are so many people working so hard to make sure that the team would stay. The problem was that you had one person who really wants to leave, and that person was the owner.
I’ve been reading what others have said and we all have these stories where it’s like, “Don’t worry. Pete’s got this. Dr. Pete has this under control.” It was the same way with this. Once I knew how interested and how important this was to him, that’s when I became comfortable with it. I know how passionate he is about the club and how much it means to him.
Obviously, it was exciting to see the #SaveTheCrew movement and the passion that the supporters brought to it, but quite honestly, you still need more in terms of this team being successful. It’s got to be more than just the vocal supporters of #SaveTheCrew. You still need to rally the community to get to a sustainable level and reward the efforts of the people over the last 15 months to ensure that the team stayed here, whether that be the Edwards and Haslam families, or everyone involved with #SaveTheCrew, or the media that was so supportive and helpful in getting the story out. There still needs to be a bigger push from the community, and hopefully we have enough momentum now where we can continue to rally.
That’s my fear, right? Okay, we did it, but you can’t take your foot off the gas. You’ve got to really take advantage of this momentum. Obviously, Alex Fischer and Mayor Ginther have been hugely important in that, but we have to make sure that that support continues to grow because there are a lot of people that it’s really important to.
I’ve rambled a bit, but that’s all the emotions of the last 15 months coming out right there.
You were at the official announcement. What was it like for you to be in that room and see it with your own eyes and know it was done?
There are a couple things. First of all, I have great appreciation to Dr. Edwards and Arica Kress for reaching out and extending invitations to former players. So that’s a big thing right there in terms of how important it was to all of us to get that invitation. The second thing is the professionalism as you’re approaching the venue. I think it was very important that it wasn’t at the Upper 90 Club. That was one of things that was apparent to me when pulling up. The whole production was at a different level already. Seeing this club over the last 20 years, to see that level of professionalism was exciting. That was the first thing.
Then just to feel the buzz in the room and to see former teammates there prior to the ceremony, the buzz around that, there was so much happiness. There was relief, but so much happiness.
The big thing that got me—I’m emotional, but not terribly emotional…my kids would say it’s more anger [laughs]—but watching the video, and I looked over at Frankie and he said it too, it was difficult not to get teary-eyed thinking about everything that’s happened over the last 15 months. In hearing everything that was said about the importance of the community and the importance of family, it makes perfect sense.
I’m sure that most people will say this about Pete, and this is what’s been reflected in everything that’s happened since he’s been involved from an ownership perspective, when you talk to him, there is nobody or anything that is more important than him talking to you at that point in time. That’s how he makes you feel. That’s what makes him a great doctor. That’s what makes him a great team doctor, but it’s not just the players. It’s anybody that he deals with. You can see that in his interactions with the fans. That’s how he’s taking this project too. There’s nothing that’s more important to him than making this great, which is in stark contrast to the previous ownership.
I remember the first time I met Anthony Precourt, it was in the Upper 90 Club after a game, and I remember thinking that the entire time I was talking to him, he was always looking for somebody else to talk to. It almost became a metaphor for how he treated Columbus. There was always something better he was looking to talk to or engage with. I can guarantee you that you never get that feeling with Pete. To have an ownership group like that, it almost makes it…I hate to say this…but the last five years or so were almost important to get us to this point. To understand all of the things that need to be different, you needed to see all of the bad times. And we had somebody there taking mental notes all along the way, paying attention to all of the things that could have been done better, and will now apply that knowledge.
You certainly don’t want to ignore your history here too, because that is very important to the club. Lamar and Clark Hunt had a huge impact on my life. They are a tremendous family in their own right. But then going through a period with an owner where, the reality is that the team was here for five years with him, so we can’t throw that away. It can be argued how little he was putting into the product to make it a good experience, but now to have an ownership group with the resources of the Haslams and the sense of history from Dr. Edwards is so key in building something special. Or maintaining the things that are special and then building on them and making it that much better.
When all this was going on and Garber said Precourt invested money, that was true. But he invested it in things that weren’t customer-facing. He re-did Obetz, he re-did the locker room, he gave Gregg additional resources for staff and scouting and things that Gregg needed on the competition side. So Anthony spent money there because he probably wants to win just like anyone else. But to spend money on things that would make the experience better for the fans and city of Columbus, he didn’t do much of that, other than hiring Gregg and giving him some resources on the team side to make them competitive.
Right. Basically, the money was spent on things that were transferable and could be taken to Austin. I am not going to disparage the fact that he did trust Gregg and wanted to give him resources to put a good product on the field, but then I’m looking at it from the academy side. Where were the resources to build a facility that’s permanent here in Columbus? Developing soccer here in Columbus? That’s where I thought we were going. I thought that’s where we were going to gain some traction. There were a little bit of the minimums that were still transferable, but nothing that was permanent here.
Not only the academy stuff, but also the gameday experience. I’m a season ticket holder. Our family probably goes to two-thirds or three-fourths of the games each year. As a player, you don’t really appreciate what the gameday experience is like for a fan until actually going through it. Spending 35-40 minutes in line at a concession stand during a two-hour soccer game can’t happen. Right? It was those amenities that are missing. That’s why it’s easy to blame the fans for not going, but if you’ve gone and had a bad experience, you’re not going to want to come back. I think a lot of fans have experienced that. They’re not going to disparage the game. The game was great. There were other things that could have been better. A lot of that looks to be trying to be solved.
I can’t imagine we’ll have a repeat of this last season, when doors were hanging off the hinges in ladies room and all the other photos fans took to document the situation.
It was embarrassing, right? As a community, you want to have pride in your team and your facilities. It was embarrassing to say “welcome to my home” and then the bathroom doors are hanging off the hinges and everything else that went along with it last year. Even though it is aging, MAPFRE Stadium has a very important place in American soccer history. It’s a shame that it hadn’t been maintained in the way that you’d like it to be, but I also think that the solution that has been presented going forward is excellent. Continue its use, give a little bit back to the community, and to maintain a presence there, I think it is a fantastic solution.
That blew my mind. That was the most perfect solution. That stadium is such an important historical landmark that I was worried we were going to lose it even if we saved the Crew. It’s incredible to keep it as part of the sports park.
Yep. And to put my foundation board hat on for a second, it’s great for the community. The Linden community needs that. The foundation and the Crew have done a lot of good things for that community, led by certain individuals, whether that be Frankie or Arica or Colt (Berry.)
That’s another thing. 15 months ago, the foundation was picking up momentum and we had a lot of great things we wanted to do in the community and then that kind of got pulled away too. We are still doing things, but not as much as we had hoped to be doing in the last 24 months, so we are looking forward to doing more stuff from that perspective.
I know you’ve touched on Dr. Pete in some of your other comments, but what do Crew fans need to know about him?
One, for me, Pete and the Edwards family is Columbus to me. He has been one of my longest continuous friends here in Columbus. Not only did he take care of me and my family from a medical perspective, in whatever needs we had, but also mentoring in terms of transitioning from a career-ending injury and sliding into another profession. He was a mentor and confidant throughout that entire process.
Going back to what I said earlier, you judge a person by the attention that a person gives you regardless of the setting that you’re in. For Pete, there is nobody more important than who he is talking to at that moment. There is nothing more important than what he is doing at that moment. You never feel like he’s disinterested in you. That’s the big thing for me.
I couldn’t think of a better person for this team. Or a better family. And it sounds like he’s found a really good partner in the Haslam family. And if he feels good about them, then I feel good about them.
Oh, and one thing I didn’t say about Pete is that he is the bridge, glue, and connector for all of us as former players. We all have him in common. Tucker (Walther, former team operations guy) is that too for all the years that he was with the team, so I am thankful for Tucker too. When I think of the Crew, I obviously think of the players, but I think of Tucker and I think of you and I think of Pete as part of the glue that holds the players together. Pete gets that. And you get that. And Arica gets that. And Tucker gets that. You don’t want to ignore that. There are a lot of clubs that wish they had history, but we have it.
Speaking of the Haslams, I couldn’t get out of work so I listened to the event, and when Dee Haslam took a moment to thank the employees that stuck it out during the difficult ordeal, I kinda started tearing up. I texted Arica right then because I was so happy that the employees got recognized for what they went through.
That’s one of the things that kind of gets forgotten. The players had a release. The players got to go out and play. Regardless of what happened, although it obviously had a different feel for guys like Alex Crognale or Wil Trapp or other guys who put down deep roots in Columbus like Pipa, and there are others obviously, like Josh as well, but the players can play other places. It’s the staff and the front office. Nobody knows the conversations that were going on within the staff and the hard time it was for them to do their job. I have a little bit of appreciation for it based on what the academy kids were going through, because they’re kind of parallel. “This team is going to leave and leave me here in Columbus without part of my identity.”
So for Dee to recognize that and comment on it just shows the character of the Haslam family to point that out. It’s one thing to acknowledge it, but it’s another thing to acknowledge it in that type of setting. So often you get in that type of setting and there are so many people to thank and so many emotions that you might forget to mention somebody. But the fact that she did mention the staff sort of highlights how important it was to her to say something about them. And to your point, those are the type of things that get you emotional.
The people that work in the front office are part of the family too. I’ve talked to several members of the front office about the sense of relief and the sense of excitement and the enthusiasm that they now have to do their job. When the team is going to leave, it’s difficult to engage as an employee. I would assume now there is an opportunity to take the shackles off and to see the creativity that comes out of that office. You’re already seeing it on social media.
So that’s a really good point and I’m sure it meant a lot to the front office when she said something.
What would you say to the fans who fought in the #SaveTheCrew movement over the last 15 months and they accomplished the thing that never happens?
It really shows what you can accomplish with some perseverance and faith. There were so many times that it would have been easy to quit and say it was over. To me, I don’t necessarily know where they were able to get their motivation from. That’s what’s kind of crazy to me. There were times where I was like, “There is no chance.” But fortunately, there were so many others that said, “No, there is a chance.” Like Morgan Hughes said, they weren’t going to stop until they saved the Crew.
Being at the steps of City Hall and thinking back to that day, this team would not have been saved without that. Then I think about Pete being there and watching it. He was soaking that in. He needed that confirmation that the fans of Columbus really wanted this. He wasn’t going to spend millions of dollars on a thing that he wants if nobody else wants it. Obviously, we needed the fans, the Edwards and Haslam families, and local leadership like Mayor Ginther and Alex Fischer, but there is no way any of this happens without that perseverance, ambition, and faith in our city. That’s really what it came down to. Somebody said our city wasn’t good enough to keep a team here.
As a transplant and somebody who said that this is a place where we want to stay and raise our family, it just confirmed our belief that this is a great city and a club with great fans. Now we get to stay here and enjoy more years of professional soccer at the highest level and watch it grow into something that is even better than what it was before.
That was one of my favorite bombs to drop when the news first broke in October, that Dr. Pete was part of our group front and center at the rally. I’m sure people saw him there, but it wouldn’t really have registered at the time. When I wrote that story in October, I ended with that photo I took of Jeni Britton-Bauer where you can see Dr. Pete under her arm standing in the front.
Even when the numbers were getting thrown around what it would take to keep the team here, I’d ask him if this was a good investment. He’d say, “Yeah. This is a good investment. This is important to me, but this can be great.” That’s the thing that’s the coolest out of all of this. You have somebody who was always around, always watching, seeing what things were being done well and what things could be done better, paying attention to what is important to the fans, paying attention to what is important to the players, paying attention to what is important to the staff…he’s seen it all. He’s seen what happens in the front office. With the gameday staff. With the fans and their interactions with the players. There are not a whole of organizations that get an ownership group that has had that much experience with a team. It’s really exciting.
And going back to the fans, it’s really interesting to see how the fans have evolved in Columbus. Going back to the early days, it was really targeted at families. As somebody who goes to a lot of games and sometimes gets recognized as being a former player, I’ve talked to people who have been season ticket holders since the beginning. They’ll say, “I used to go to games with my daughters and my sons, and they have families now and come back with their kids.” But then the juxtaposition with the atmosphere and the passion that continues to grow in one of the best supporters sections In the league, and I can only imagine that it’s going to be magnified going forward.
On twitter, fans are saying Nordecke season tickets are almost sold out.
Melissa and I keep talking about that. Are we as a city going to reward the #SaveTheCrew effort by buying season tickets? Obviously you see people saying they’ve fulfilled their pledge on social media, but I’m really curious to see what those numbers look like. It’s not just the Nordecke. It’s got to be everybody else. But it’s created a lot of positive potential and not just in the soccer community. I’ve got people in the office that are like, “Maybe I will go to my first game this year!” One hand, it’s ridiculous. On the other hand, I’m happy they’re interested and I’m sorry that they’ve missed out on the last 20 years.
There are people who are proud of Columbus and have civic pride that Columbus did this, so now they want to be part of it.
It’s a wake-up call too, right? As a community, we were not supportive enough. There are reasons for that. It’s hard to be supportive of something that has a limited TV package. That doesn’t put the resources into marketing that it should. Isn’t creating the gameday experience that it should. I’m not going to argue why that was as a consumer or even somebody in business. You don’t want to blame the consumer for not wanting your product. You’re obviously not putting together a good enough product for them to want. Now we’ve all got to work to make it that much better. We need those investments. We need to fill the stadium. We need to reward everybody who spent so much time and effort toward keeping the team here. There are no more excuses now. I understand that will create longer lines at the concession stands and it will take longer to get out of the parking lot, but I’ll sacrifice that for two years until the new stadium is ready. The fans can provide feedback. This is what I don’t like about attending games at MAPFRE and this is what I like about attending games at MAPFRE, so can we keep the good parts and use the new stadium to fix these other other problems?
But it (the civic pride) really is an incredible feeling. It’s a little bit of an affirmation for our family. Melissa and I wanted to come here. I got traded here to come back to the Midwest and I was fortunate to have a pretty successful seven-year MLS career, but then to make the decision to stay here, this just confirms that we made a great decision to stay in Columbus, Ohio. We are proud of the community that we live in.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.