U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer John Harkes was a part of many firsts in his career. He was a member of the first U.S. yeam in 40 years to qualify for the World Cup in 1990, was the first American to win a League Cup in England with Sheffield Wednesday in 1991, was part of the first game in MLS history and won the first MLS Cup in league history with D.C. United, was part of the first game in Crew Stadium history as a sub for the New England Revolution, was part of the first trophy-winning team in Crew history in 2002, and he was the first coach in FC Cincinnati history as he helped launch our new Hell is Real rivals.
Now he’s on to another first as he leads USL League One expansion side Greenville Triumph into existence. When one thinks of South Carolina pro soccer, one thinks of the Charleston Battery, so when Harkes took a breather from his breakneck schedule to talk on the phone from South Carolina about the saving of the Columbus Crew, I first asked about his new endeavor in a virgin pro soccer market.
“The area has had a massive and strong youth population and production of players that have come through his area, and then certainly surround that with all of the universities in the area,” he said. “Our owner, Joe Erwin, who’s a truly authentic leader, wanted to do something special in Greenville. When he and I shared our visions about how to build things and the work that I had done in Cincinnati, we just hit it off. He’s a really intelligent guy and he wants to give back to the community. I said to him that when you build a sports club, you have to be all-in because the club is really there for the community. That’s what it’s about and he completely understood that.
“The city here has really embraced us,” he continued. “It’s a transition for everyone here in terms of having pro soccer. We have baseball here with the (single-A level) Drive, but we’re also ready for soccer. The whole town and the Upstate area is ready.”
Under entirely different circumstances, Columbus is another soccer market that is ready for the 2019 season. Harkes was in Columbus from 2001 until his retirement from professional soccer early in the 2003 season. He took a half hour out of his Sunday morning to talk about Columbus and the saving of the Crew. Here are some #SavedTheCrew highlights from our conversation…
On what his time in Columbus meant to him:
So many great memories. For me, it’s about the moments in the game that you share with people, and we had so many special people in Columbus when I played there. Having Lamar Hunt as our owner and the Hunt family, to win an Open Cup trophy and to have his name on the trophy, it was pretty remarkable. That’s hard to do. It was really special to do that and share those great successes with Lamar. What a true leader he was, and what a great person who gave back everything to his love of the game and of the community. The fanbase was absolutely brilliant when I played for them and put the Black & Gold on. I have so many great memories on the field as well as off the field. Retiring there was really special.
On what it was like to watch the relocation saga unfold for 15 months and then finding out the Crew would be saved for Columbus and not stolen away to Austin:
It was really difficult because you never want to see a club uprooted and taken away from a community. Like I said earlier about Cincinnati and now in Greenville, I love creating and I love building things. If you really get it right in terms of the club in that it is there for the community and it is there for the fanbase, and you are part of that structure, it’s really, really important to take on that responsibility and accountability at the club. So it was a tough time. Not being in Columbus and working and coaching at my own club, it was looking at it and thinking, “Man, what’s really happening out there?”
Talking to Dr. Pete a few times during his process, I told him, “If you could keep the club there, it would be phenomenal. There are so many people, and not just as a former player and having those emotions, but it would just be so instrumental to the country and the game itself.” You never want to see a club go away. You want to keep growing and evolving, and Columbus has always been instrumental in the history of the game, so let’s keep it going. I’m glad he was able to push it through with not just his passion, but his sweat equity and financial stability and everything about it. The ownership group that he put together to keep that club there is so important.
On Dr. Pete being part of the ownership group:
I think, from his perspective, that he always had a love and passion for the team, but I also think he has a passion for the club itself and what it represents in the community. I think that continued to grow and evolve throughout the years, and I think now, that’s what what pushed him on to think, “Maybe I can help in some regard.” I’m glad he decided to do this. People can have ideas, but it takes someone with passion and drive to push those ideas forward, so I’m glad Dr. Edwards did it. He’s always been very supportive of not just the players, but the community in the Columbus area. I think it’s great that he stepped up. I’m so glad.
Anthony Precourt had his own business and his own ideas, but it’s great that Dr. Pete Edwards and the ownership group stepped in and said, “Well, we’d like to keep it here because we have our own ideas about this club.” It’s fantastic.
On the family atmosphere that Dr. Pete hopes to restore within the Crew, especially for alumni to be more of a part of the club:
It’s about true leadership and authentic leadership. It’s about gathering together and making it a family culture. That’s how you build it. You put the standards and expectations very high in terms of the respect issue within the entire club and then that behavior drives the culture of the club on a daily basis and you need to be held accountable for that. For me, it is about family. When you have a club, even at the bigger clubs I played at, like West Ham, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, and everyone overseas, and then back here with D.C. United, New England Revolution, and Columbus Crew, it’s about the families.
For players, on and off the field, it’s important for them to feel like they are connected and are a part of something special when they’re pushing through in the good times and the bad times. Family is key. That’s how you run a successful club. You’re not going to get wins all the time, but even when you don’t get the wins, you’re going to share in those lessons together and that’s how you get better as a club. That’s the environment you need, so I’m glad to hear that a guy of his caliber wants to bring that to the club moving forward.
There are some clubs that do it the right way and some clubs that don’t. If you want longevity with a club and being connected to the community, it’s not just about being successful. It helps to win trophies and to compete, but it’s also about being there as a club for the community. Being a part of that family is huge.
On historic, first-of-its-kind MAPFRE Stadium being preserved as part of the new training facility and community sports park:
That’s exciting hear because you always want to preserve the history of the game. Especially with the game’s history here, some people aren’t maybe as enlightened as they could be with regard to the history of soccer in the United States. I’ve been working with Tom McCabe, who is a historian and professor at Rutgers University in Jersey, and we’re doing a Soccertown USA documentary that he’s been putting together, but there are other things that he pulls up. It’s amazing that he’s found the original U.S. Open Cup trophy that was lost for years and years and years. He chases these things down, and for me, it’s so important to save that kind of history.
So to save the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS, it shows that Lamar Hunt and his family were groundbreaking pioneers and leaders. We need to take care of that and ensure that when we talk about the history of the game, people are able to reflect on that in the community and say, “Dear God, this is where it all started. This was part of the embryo stage of the game in this country in terms of Major League Soccer.” So it’s great have Crew Stadium and to keep it and maintain it the way it is and have people go there and visit and reflect on how important it was. It’s an iconic part of American soccer history.
When I think about the Columbus Crew and what they’ve done and that identity, that stadium stands alone. There is not going to be another first soccer-specific stadium in MLS. They made that first impression for the league and the sport in this country that people not only maybe raised an eyebrow to, but they didn’t even want to be a part of the game in this country, and now they want to come to a game there. Back in 1999, that was huge.
On what he would say to the fan-led #SaveTheCrew movement that fought tooth and nail to keep the club in Columbus:
Thank you for not only just having hope and believing in that and pushing it through, but even in dire times, the #SaveTheCrew effort was amazing. They persevered and pushed through it and said, “This is not over! We’re going to fight for this. We want this!” It wasn’t just lip service. They got after it and they rallied and they pushed it on and encouraged people.
I’m sure that’s what Dr. Pete Edwards and the ownership group saw and made them think, “We can sustain it here and build something special.” So big thanks to the fans for pouring all of their hearts and passion in support for the club. I think that’s what kept the Crew there. I really do.
If I have a break in my schedule in Greenville, I need to get to a game and experience what they’re doing. I’m looking forward to it. It’s such a success story not just in our game, but for sport in general.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.