I, like most Crew fans, had to watch MLS Cup 2020 on TV due to the pandemic. It was difficult not to be there and bittersweet to watch the joy unfold so far out of reach via images beamed into my living room 146 miles away. In an effort to turn that around, I decided to focus on some people I was happy were there. For this series, I am focusing on three of the people whose presence at MAPFRE Stadium brought me joy instead of lamenting my own absence. Two of them I know personally, but I am going to start with someone I did not know until we spoke by telephone for over an hour earlier this week—Savannah Bee.
Sunday morning, while still trying to comprehend the reality of the Crew’s 3-0 thrashing of the defending champion Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup 2020, I saw a tweet that made me smile.
I don’t know Savannah Bee. But I do know of her. That’s because the last time MLS Cup was held at MAPFRE Stadium, she went viral as the iconic personification of Crew fan feelings following the had-to-see-it-to-believe-it soul-crushing loss to the Portland Timbers.
Savannah’s Crew journey began a year after Columbus lifted MLS Cup for the first time. Her boyfriend had gone to a game with a coworker just to check out a soccer match and had fun. Savannah went with him the next time. They drove up from Cincinnati, and for her, it was love at first sight. On July 25, 2009, Savannah watched from the Nordecke as Jason Garey headed home a Frankie Hejduk cross in the second minute of stoppage time to claim the Trillium Cup for the Crew in a thrilling 3-2 comeback win against Toronto.
“I’d never been to a soccer match,” she says. “Going there and being in that stadium and the energy from the Nordecke, where everyone is jumping and singing and celebrating, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. When can we come back again?’”
Savannah quickly became a season ticket member and began bringing as many friends as she could so they could experience the fun. Their growing group became known as the Cincy Crew.
“In some ways it sucks because for us, it’s an all-day commitment,” she says. “We can’t just do whatever we were going to do for the day and then pop over to the game. We have to make a whole day out of it. It’s worth it to us because we love it, but it’s a whole production sometimes.”
(As an aside for the curious, the launch of FC Cincinnati did nothing for her, despite there now being a team conveniently located in her hometown. “I had no interest,” she says. “I was more annoyed than anything.”)
After six years of highway-driving devotion, she attended MLS Cup 2015, which provided an opportunity to finally see her beloved Crew play for the MLS crown. She drove north on I-71 fueled by dreams of glory. Instead, she would soon be living in an odd dream that was actually her surreal reality.
“It was a good feeling leading up to the game,” she says, “and then it all went downhill from there.”
MLS Cup 2015 will forever live in infamy. Just 27 seconds into match, Portland’s Diego Valeri blocked a clearance attempt by Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark and the ball caromed back into the net to give the Timbers 1-0 lead. Seven minutes later, the officiating Crew missed a staggeringly obvious out of bounds call. As everyone walked around waiting for a Crew throw-in, Darlington Nagbe, then of Portland, alertly played the ball due to a lack of a whistle, starting a Timbers counterattack against a flat-footed Crew that resulted in a goal to make it 2-0. Columbus got one back on a Kei Kamara tally, but they never seriously threatened for an equalizer.
“It was like the rug got pulled out from under our feet,” she says.
Years and months and weeks of anticipation were wiped away in 27 seconds and then the dream bled out over the remaining 89 and half minutes. When it was over, and as the Timbers celebrated on MAPFRE’s sacred field, MLS Commissioner Don Garber took the microphone for the usual trophy ceremony platitudes about congratulating the losing team for a fine season and commending the crestfallen home fans for their terrific support. That’s when Savannah saw a close-up of her face on the scoreboard. She had been randomly selected as the designated Sad Crew Fan to be broadcast to the national television audience as visual accompaniment to Garber’s perfunctory consolation.
“I was mad at that point,” she says. “I was like, no, you are not going to leave me up there. Get me off of there.”
Savannah figured there was only one way to make the camera avert its gaze, which was to force the issue via a hand gesture unsuitable for broadcast television. She thought nothing else of it.
“That was just that,” she says.
Only it wasn’t. As she and her two friends made the forlorn drive back to Cincinnati in the pitch blackness of the unlit highway, her phone wouldn’t stop vibrating. She pulled off at one point to see what was happening. Crew friends had been texting to say she was on TV, accompanied by screenshots and videos. But these were just her Crew friends. No big deal.
It wasn’t until she got home and the popular Men in Blazers podcast contacted her that she realized her momentarily flippant camera avoidance tactic had somehow morphed into a viral sensation.
“It got really weird,” she says. “It got a little bit strange for me.”
Some fans merely thought it was amusing. Others viewed her as heroically delivering truth to power. Conversely, some took great offense to her gesture, admonishing her for being a poor role model to young Crew fans and children in general. And then there were the folks who tracked her down and began harassing her online.
“I had a hard time just enjoying it for what it was,” she says. “I didn’t choose to do any of that. I didn’t do it to get anything out of it. I was terrified during the entire thing.”
In the spring of 2016, as the situation began to die down, Savannah received an unusual request. Whether they identified with her as a kindred spirit or just wanted to throw some good karma into the world to balance out their cruel MLS Cup win, Timbers fans started a GoFundMe to raise money to bring Savannah out to Portland to see the Crew play in an MLS Cup rematch in the season opener. Knowing she could not otherwise afford such a trip, and after receiving assurances the Timbers would cover the cost of a friend to join her on her journey so she wouldn’t be alone, she agreed to go.
What followed was awkward yet rewarding. She posed for countless middle finger photos with Timbers fans, received gifts of a t-shirt and buttons with her bird-flipping likeness on them, and was even granted a behind-the-scenes stadium tour when Timbers owner Merritt Paulson learned she was coming.
Although she was mortified by the attention, she was blown away by the kindness of the Portland fans and made many new friendships that continue to this day. She had no idea how helpful those friendships would soon become.
On the night of October 16, 2017, Savannah felt blindsided by the Grant Wahl tweet that shook Crewville to its core. Crew owner Anthony Precourt intended to move the Crew to Austin in 2019 if a new downtown stadium couldn’t be built. (By which he meant he intended to move the team to Austin in 2019 as that was truly his sole contractually pre-arranged aim.)
“That was a kick to the stomach,” she says. “This can’t be real. You’re scrolling through social media to see if anyone is saying anything and you’re texting your friends. And then everything starts leaking out and it’s like a balloon just deflating.”
Once a group of resolutely undaunted fans launched the #SaveTheCrew movement, Savannah bought stickers and t-shirts to support the cause, and even purchased Facebook ads to help sell tickets to matches. She continued to bring people up from Cincinnati to drive interest in the Crew.
“It’s a huge part of my life,” she says. “It’s what I’ve invested my time, money, and energy into. I’ve made so many friends. It was a tough time.”
Those friends she made in Portland came through in a big way. They were buying and selling #SaveTheCrew merchandise and raising money for the fan-driven efforts in Columbus. Timbers fans were among #SaveTheCrew’s staunchest allies, although it wasn’t just the Portlanders who lent a helping hand.
“The outpouring of support from other clubs was incredible,” she says. “It was so humbling to see that people care about each other in this sport.”
Savannah went to the Crew away match in New York City the weekend after the relocation news broke. As she stood on a street corner in Manhattan while wearing a Crew shirt, a businessman walked by and said, “Hey! Save the Crew!”
“I stood there for a second like, what?” she says. “Like, holy shit, we have some momentum here. I’m standing in the middle of the busiest city in America and somebody already knows what this is right now.”
Then she went to MLS headquarters and left a Crew scarf at the front desk as a present for Garber.
A year later, when the news broke that the Crew had been saved, she honked her horn in delight while driving around Cincinnati.
“People had no idea what was going on,” she says. “They were probably like what’s wrong with this woman? I was screaming and blasting Toto and honking my horn.”
Unable to attend this year’s Crewsmas, Savannah had not been to a single Crew game in 2020 until she and some friends lucked their way into MLS Cup tickets. Despite their pandemic concerns, the Cincy Crew figured if they were lucky enough to get a precious handful of the 1,500 available tickets, it must surely be a sign they should go, while adhering to all the necessary safety precautions of course.
Experiencing the familiar drive and approach for the first time in over a year soon gave way to the strange experience of a mostly empty parking lot. The excitement of tailgates and music and mingling had to be replaced with pregame drinking in one’s own car. Rather than the shoulder-to-shoulder vibrancy of the Nordecke’s front row, Savannah found herself at the top of the section, separated from friends she hadn’t seen since 2019.
“It was such an exciting day and a sad day at the same time,” she says. “You can’t high-five your friends or hug the ushers or any of the other rituals you’re used to. All that has come to a halt. The ushers did a great job enforcing the rules. It was an adjustment, but it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of the game. Once the game started, there was a feeling of normalcy that took over. It took the edge off.”
MLS Cup 2020 provided a stark contrast to 2015’s heartbreak. The Crew jumped all over Seattle from the opening whistle, built a 2-0 first half lead, and came away with the first three-goal victory in MLS Cup history. For Savannah, there was no risk of being Sad Crew Fan Who Needed to Flip Off the Camera To Make It Go Away. Instead, she basically beat herself up in her euphoria. From the sounds of it, it would have made for a far more entertaining video than her 2015 bird-flipping.
“I am still bruised to hell and back,” she says. “I jumped. I fell. I ran into every single railing. I didn’t even care. I look like I was assaulted. My friend’s boyfriend fell over the tarps and slid down and lost his shoe after one of the goals. It was just pure joy. And then they brought the trophy over and I just sat there and tried to take it all in to remember all of it. It was just really cool to know what your team has gone through and to just experience that joy and for everyone in the stadium to be happier than they ever thought they were going to be just a few years ago. I feel like I’m going to cry right now even talking about it.”
“This is what everybody fought for. This is what we wanted to keep here. We wanted this feeling and this energy and this team and this moment.”
I’m so happy Savannah was there.
My latest book “A Massive Collection, Volume 1” is now available!
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