MLS Cup 2020: Alumni Reactions– Dante Washington

In putting together this alumni reaction series, there were two guys I saved for last. I wanted to go a little longer with those guys because we see them every day in the Crew community. (Well, at least we did before the pandemic hit.)

The first of these two guys is Dante Washington. Dante had three different stints as a Crew player (1996, 2000-2002, and 2004), plus served as a broadcaster in in the late aughts, and then in 2019, he rejoined the organization as the Crew’s Director of Team Strategic Partnerships and Business Development. Dante was a fan favorite as an All-Star forward, he stood on the steps of City Hall and spoke passionately about saving the team at the #SaveTheCrew rally, and now he is working for the organization as the Crew heads toward an exciting future.

It’s always fun to talk to Dante, especially when he drops a few deadpan gems like the one that opens our conversation. Some of the conversation has been edited down for length.

******

So…another Crew championship for you in another role. You won a U.S. Open Cup and a Supporters’ Shield as a player, an MLS Cup and two Shields as a broadcaster, and now another MLS Cup as a member of the front office.

I don’t want to say I told you so, but good things happen when I’m around.

Obviously.

I will take full credit for it all. I mean, in 2004, I was here for a month and we won the Supporters’ Shield. I’ll claim it.

(NOTE: Dante played 19 minutes in one regular season appearance as a late-season roster addition to the 2004 Shield winners.)

Well, the Crew didn’t clinch the Shield until the final weekend in 2004, so clearly it was your mere presence. With this MLS Cup, we all got the COVID news about Darlington and Pedro in the days leading up to the game, and that we were going to be down these two prominent players. So what was your outlook heading in?

I was in a meeting with Bez and he made a comment. It wasn’t anything specific, but it was enough for me to be like, ‘Oh crap, something bad has happened.’ I didn’t even want to know what it was. Then when we found out, I was probably like everyone else. It was like oh my goodness. So going into it, I knew the odds were stacked against us, and I know everyone talks about the soccer gods being against us, but I was like, ‘Please soccer gods shine down on us. After all we’ve been through, please just give us this one.’ Lo and behold, we got it.

I was a nervous wreck the day of the game. The week itself was just a blur because there was so much stuff we had to do as an organization to get ready to host it. It’s all hands on deck to do whatever needs to get done to see this thing off. I was just kind of ancillary to all the work that needed to be done and filled in here or there when needed. Obviously I’m not complaining. There are a lot of behind the scenes things that need to happen to put on a game like that, and there were many people way more involved in that than I was. It was a crazy week.

So you make it through the crazy week and the nervousness and then the game kicks off and it’s an ass kicking from the opening whistle. What’s going through your mind when you see the Crew’s performance right off the bat?

When I really got nervous is when Gyasi’s shot hit Stefan Frei in the arm. It’s like, ‘Please don’t let this be one of those games where we throw everything at them and then they score on some kind of fluke.’ I’ve seen so many games like that in my life. But then as the game started settling in and we were still dominant, it was like, ‘Alright, this is only a matter of time before we get another good opportunity and we score.’

When we did it, it felt so stinking good. I was going nuts up in the box. And then you’re still optimistic, but you want to keep it going. Then we got the second one and I had a perfect view of it. It was a very well-taken shot that wasn’t as easy as some people might think, with all the dynamics that go into hitting that ball into the lower corner.

In the second half, Seattle made some substitutions and brought in Will Bruin, who always seems to score in the playoffs. And in the semifinal Seattle came back from 2-0 down. Everyone watched that game, including the players on the field I’m sure. You’re like, ‘Okay, they can’t do this again.’ And even probably in the 75th or 80th minute, I was like, ‘Just don’t let them get one.’ And then we got the third goal and it was all over at that point.

It was me and Issa (Tall, the Crew’s Director of Player Personnel & Strategy) sitting in the outside box in front of one suite. Bez and most of the technical staff were in the other one. To my left was (Columbus Partnership CEO) Alex Fischer and my good friend Doug Ulman of Pelotonia, who’s from my hometown and grew up playing soccer. I just kind of sat there and looked around like, ‘This is really happening. This is unbelievable.’

Unbelievable would describe the Crew’s first goal, with Lucas running on to Harry’s cross and volleying it left-footed while on a dead run.

I had a good look at that one too. At first I thought it wasn’t going to go in. Frei got a hand on it and I thought he was going to fall on it and cover it up. But before it happened, I saw Lucas on a dead sprint and I kept saying to myself look at Lucas because they blew the marking. The right back got pulled out of position and nobody covered for him. It was a great ball by Harry to find him at the back post and a great touch by Lucas. That’s what you do to a good team. You punish them when they make a mistake. And it was a big mistake by Seattle, whether it was lack of communication or desire or whatever. And then it was kind of like the Gyasi play where it hits Frei in the hand, but this time it deflects and goes into the net. I was like, ‘That is the reward because we have been completely dominating them.’ It’s that feeling where you’re deserving of a goal and then you’re rewarded and you know it’s well deserved.

You mentioned Derrick’s goal was not as easy as it looked. He took that pass and nutmegged the defender while putting it in the lower corner. He just kind of passed it into the far side of the net.

Like I said, it’s not as easy as it looks. I mean that can easily go wrong where someone tries to hit with too much power, or tries to bend it too much, or tries to overcompensate and beat the keeper to the near post. Or they’ll hit it too high or something like that. Him keeping it low while hitting it as firmly as he did made it even harder on the goalkeeper. He took it absolutely perfectly. I’ve seen that type of situation so many times where the shot doesn’t go in.

Firsthand?

Never firsthand.

Of course not. Didn’t think so. And then there was the third goal. What I liked about that one is that Luis gets bumped or challenged and he doesn’t go down. He just fights through it and continues on. He easily could have gone to the ground and earned a free kick, but he barreled through it like he was Nick Chubb or something, then got behind the defense and cut it back to Lucas for the goal.

I think you summed it up really well. There are a lot of times, especially near the end of the game, where you look to draw the foul and take some time off the clock and run a set piece. But with him staying on his feet, I think he knew he had enough space where he could keep his feet and get the angle to get behind. Picking out Lucas was perfect, obviously. So many times in that situation you might not be able to pick out the trailing player. Maybe he just knew Lucas was going to be there because Lucas does that so often where he comes in as a trailing attacker to collect the ball at the 18. That strike was absolutely perfect. He didn’t try to bend it. He struck that toes down with his laces and at full power and hit the side netting. At that point, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re crushing them and we’re gonna win MLS Cup.’

How about Aidan Morris? He has to fill the shoes of Darlington Nagbe against a Sounders team trying to claim dynasty status. He’s 19 years old and he finds this out a couple days before the game and he becomes the youngest player to start an MLS Cup final.

As a professional athlete, when your number is called, you have to step up. For him to rise to the occasion and to play the way that he did at such a young age, you don’t see that all the time. It was just a fitting storyline with everything that went into us winning MLS Cup. I mean, obviously, going back through the last three years and then for us to be right on the doorstep and hosting the final, but then to have one of our homegrown players trying to fill some unfillable shoes. But he did it in his way. I mean, obviously he’s not the same type of player that Darlington is, which isn’t to diminish Aidan at all. Aidan came in and did exactly what he needed to do. He focused on running his tail off, being disruptive, getting the ball, and giving it to someone else. The thing that set him apart, and the thing I thought Seattle would exploit with his youth and inexperience, is that I thought Seattle would press him and try to make him cough the ball up. And they did press. But nine-and-a-half times out of ten, he made the right pass or the right touch. I don’t think people expected that.

When you’re playing for a championship at home, there’s so much pressure on you as a player. In some ways, he may have been so young that he just thought he was going to go out there and play. I’m not sure what the message was from Caleb to him, but I’m sure it was to not to try to be Darlington and to just do what you do. Because he played in a few games during the season and they saw him every day at training, they knew what he could do. Everyone was comfortable with him on the field. In some ways, I think we were better prepared for it than Seattle was because we knew what Aidan was going to bring to the table and there wasn’t much out there to scout on him. And even if you did scout him, who would have thought he would have thought he’d be able to handle everything that he did?

After the game, I saw Aidan talking with Lucas. I couldn’t hear everything, but I could tell from the mannerisms that Lucas was congratulating him on playing so well. And then I heard him ask Aidan how old he was and Aidan said 19 and Lucas looked like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.’ So yeah, hats off to Aidan. Kudos to that performance.

Speaking of Lucas, how about him? That may have been a perfect game. I mean, never mind the two goals and the assist, all of which were awesome. But just the number of times his first touch got him out of trouble or the number of times he tracked back to disrupt a play. It felt like Lucas was everywhere all night long.

I could tell from very early on that he was dialed in. I think I even said it while I was watching that you could tell he wanted this and he’s completely locked in and playing his game. He hardly put a foot wrong all night long. Never mind the two goals and the assist, which obviously were warranted. But this is what you expect from big-time players. Early in the season, I could tell that he was definitely something special. Then COVID hit and then he got injured and we couldn’t really see who the real Lucas was. But  I was excited to see him play in the final to see what someone of his capabilities could do in a big game. It would have been cool to see what Guille would do at 28 because look at what he did in MLS Cup at 35. For Lucas, it was a masterclass as a number ten. He was pretty much the man. He was perfect.

How about the job that defense had to do in neutralizing Seattle’s attack? Seattle didn’t really produce much of anything apart from winning some corner kicks in the second half. What about the defensive work the team did against that high-powered offense?

I was worried about that as well. Seattle, obviously, between Ruidiaz, Lodeiro, and Jordan Morris, has a very powerful attack. I think one of the things that made it easier for our defense is that Lucas and Aidan and all those other guys played really, really well too. So the defense’s job was easier because we were dominating them. They were chasing the ball and we were dictating so much of the game. It made it easier for the defenders to play, so when they needed to step up, they absolutely stepped up. It was one of those perfect games. Everyone did their role and then some.

I’m especially happy for Josh Williams to step in the way that he has. He came up big in so many ways and it’s just great to see. I’ve known Josh for many years, and while I don’t know him really well, he knows what this means to the organization because he’s lived it. He’s a Crew fan from Ohio, so to see him to be able to experience it, and to play the way that he played, it was great to see. I’m so happy for him.

And Jona has been a rock all year and is worthy of all that accolades he’s gotten. It’s funny, because I’ve been asked for my thoughts on this team. Because of my role, I interact with the team somewhat. I was closer in 2019, because in 2020, I really couldn’t interact that much because of COVID. But what I could sense from the team, including that core from 2019, and going into 2020, it’s similar to what we’ve seen all along. For a long time, the Crew teams I played on were like a family. Guys genuinely liked each other. You didn’t have cliques. I mean, you’re going to naturally have groups of guys who all hang out together more, like the young guys hang out together or other groups of guys hang out more, but it’s still one big family. Over the years, there are definitely teams that are not as cohesive as you think or hope they would be, but with this team, you can tell they love being around each other and playing together. They are going to be there for their teammates when they need them, whether it be on the field or off the field.

What would you say to the fans or the city on the occasion of winning MLS Cup? You know what everybody’s been through the last few years. What I think is funny is that saving the team is a fairytale ending. Or you can look forward and say opening the new stadium and launching into a bright new future after saving the team is a fairytale ending. And now the Crew go and win MLS Cup and provide a THIRD fairytale ending to the whole #SaveTheCrew story. It’s crazy. So what would you say to the fans and the city after winning another MLS Cup?

The diehard fans who supported us and are so integral to us still being here, my best words are thank you, even though that’s not really enough. You and I were at the #SaveTheCrew rally at City Hall that Sunday afternoon, so I’ve been on this road with them, and many of them never even saw me play. But we’re all part of the Crew family. It doesn’t matter whether they saw me play or not because we have a mutual love for the club. So to all the fans, whether they are hardcore or just general Columbus sports fans, thank you.

And also thank you to the city and community. But let this be only part of the story. This is just the beginning, because with the direction of our ownership and leadership and what we’re trying to do as an organization, this championship is just part of the evolution of that. We’re not going to win championships all the time. Obviously everyone hopes we do, but the reality is that we won’t. Nobody does. But our goal is to compete for championships every year and to win more of them. So let’s not lose what got us here and let’s bring more people on board. What we have now is very special. And what we’ve had in the past, except for a few years, was very special. And we’re getting back to that. We’re going to get that back and even in a bigger way than in the past. I get that sense from our ownership and our leadership in terms of where we want to be, and what we want to be, and who we want to be. What we want to do as an organization is really going to change some minds about what the Columbus Crew is. I think once people see the new stadium, once they see the new training facility, once they see the way we operate, it’s going to be a different message and a different feel than what people have become accustomed to. I can’t help but think even more people are going to hop on board and support us. We’re already starting to see that, and obviously winning a championship helps. The ideal scenario is that our new stadium is always full of 20,000 screaming fans. I love to feel the buzz for the club, and not just during the season. I would love to see the people with their bumper stickers, flags, hats, shirts, sweatshirts and all the stuff with Columbus Crew on it.

I think maybe it all goes back to that America’s Hardest Working Team motto. When the chips are down and things look dire, that’s kind of when we bootstrap it up and get to work and end up succeeding.

******

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