Today’s Eastern Conference Final between the Columbus Crew and New England Revolution highlights an interesting dichotomy. Professional athletes need to have short memories. They focus on the task at hand, which is of the utmost importance to them. Fans, meanwhile, have long, institutional memories. For them, games may have years of additional emotional meaning beyond that day’s match up.
Sometimes these items overlap. By the time the 1999 MLS Eastern Conference Finals rolled around after the Crew lost at the same stage to the same team each of the prior two seasons, the Venn diagram of player and fan emotion when it came to the thought of beating D.C. United was a perfect circle. Ditto for the 2017 Eastern Conference Final against Toronto on the heels of Anthony Precourt’s freshly-revealed Crew relocation plot.
Other times, the circles overlap somewhat. When the Crew hosted the Chicago Fire in the 2008 Eastern Conference Final, the teams had engaged in two epic regular season battles and there was very much an on-field rivalry there. For Crew fans, it ran even deeper. The Crew were 0-for-4 in conference finals to that point. The Fire had beaten the Crew in the 1998 U.S. Open Cup final and had largely dominated the Midwestern rivalry for its first decade of existence. And then there was the matter of two prominent Fire players having been beloved in Columbus when they played for the Crew—Brian McBride and Jon Busch. For a Crew fan, the thought of the Black & Gold succumbing in the conference final yet again despite the best team in Crew history, and also losing to a hated rival in part due to contributions by two beloved former Crew players, it was unbearable. Especially when McBride scored to give the Fire a 1-0 lead. There is a reason many Crew fans rank that 2-1 comeback victory over the Fire even higher than the subsequent MLS Cup triumph.
And then there are instances where the team’s motivation and the fans’ emotional baggage don’t overlap much at all. For the members of the 2020 Columbus Crew, the task at hand is to defeat the red-hot Revolution in today’s Eastern Conference Final. It’s an opportunity for greatness on a personal, squad, and organizational level. Longtime Crew fans want all that, but it goes so even deeper. Whereas the current squad hasn’t even played New England this year, Columbus fans have experienced a quarter century of battles against the Revs, including three playoff meetings that all terminated a Crew season.
* The Revs bested the Crew in 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. It was the fourth time in the span of six seasons that the Crew found themselves on the doorstep of an MLS Cup appearance, only to be denied once again. They could have redeemed a disappointing regular season with a trip to MLS Cup, but didn’t thanks to New England.
* In 2004, my goodness. The Crew won their first Supporters’ Shield and finished the year on an 18-game unbeaten streak. Naturally, they lost the first leg in New England, 1-0. The second leg, on October 31, 2004, remains one of the most nightmarish matches in Crew history. New England’s Matt Reis saved not one but TWO penalty kicks as the Revs stole a 1-1 draw to advance 2-1 on aggregate. Tony Sanneh’s feeble roller from the spot in the second half will forever live in Crew infamy.
* In 2014, new coach Gregg Berhalter returned the Crew to the postseason for the first time since 2011. They were slaughtered in both legs of their first-round matchup with New England, losing 4-2 at home and 3-1 in Foxobro for a 7-3 aggregate humiliation.
But that’s not all. New England’s coach is Bruce Arena, who built and led those great D.C. United teams of the 1990s. The same D.C. United that defeated the Crew in three consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, with Arena at the helm for the first two of those. If one thinks back to the quality of those early Crew teams…Brian McBride, Brian Maisonneuve, Brad Friedel, Stern John, Jeff Cunningham, Thomas Dooley, and on and on…they were quite capable of winning a championship. Alas, D.C. United blocked them three years in a row, twice with Bruce Arena on the sideline and once with the team he built being coached by Thomas Rongen.
There’s also the matter of Arena’s sardonic putdowns of Crew games at the Horseshoe in those early days. He described it as “like a circus, but I guess that’s entertainment in Middle America.” On Arena’s next visit to coach in Columbus, the Crew responded by hiring circus clowns and other sideshow performers to bring his description to life.
What’s all of this history involving the Revolution and Bruce Arena have to do with the 2020 Columbus Crew? Absolutely nothing whatsoever. But if they fulfill their own personal and professional goals this afternoon, the players will provide a deeply-layered victory for Columbus that goes beyond the scope of their own immediate experience.
A history of related past heartbreaks doesn’t portend doom for the present. Far from it. Rather, like the Eastern Conference Final played at home in 2008, it’s the next exciting opportunity for the 2020 squad to avenge those who had come before and earn a reverential place in Crew lore.
A haunted pathway to Massive.
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