Three-and-a-half years ago, Sean Kelly invited me to dinner and told me of his moral compulsion to document the fight to save the Crew. Born in England and primarily based out of San Diego, Kelly had fallen for a Columbus girl a few years earlier, then subsequently fell for the city’s soccer team. Despite being a relative outsider, he felt chronicling the fight to save the club and shining light on the David vs. Goliath story was the right thing to do and would be his way to help the cause. He also cautioned me, however, that he needed to tell all sides of the story, including Austin’s. While his initial sympathies and motivations were with Columbus, the film was its own distinct entity. Wherever they may lead, the facts and the unfolding developments would guide him through whatever twists and turns were to come.
There were twists and turns aplenty, and now the finished film, Save The Crew: The Battle for Columbus, is set for its world premiere on Thursday night at Gateway Film Center in Columbus. (As of this writing, some tickets remain available for the third showing at 10:00pm.) The film will stream on COPA90 later this summer.
In watching the film, Crew fans will be transported back in time to the darkest hours of the club’s history, as the film opens with former owner Anthony Precourt’s disingenuous words about his commitment to Columbus for the long haul and then how he did everything he could to make the club successful in Central Ohio, all despite planning to move the club to Austin all along. I expected more PTSD from the early parts of the film, but knowing how gloriously Crew fans prevailed in the end blunts the effect of the revisited trauma. It’s a case where knowing the ending of the story makes Precourt look even worse than he did in real time, if such a thing is possible. Watching his comments and actions through the lens of hindsight does not flatter him. Sometimes telling both sides of the story doesn’t go so well for one of the sides doing the telling. The words “hoist” and “petard” come to mind.
Other Austin subjects fare better, such as the two fans visiting the former toxic wasteland known as McKalla Place, where the new Austin soccer stadium stands today. They walk out into a neglected landscape and envision what the future could be for the soccer fans of their city. Later in the film, Dante Washington does the same thing on the plot of land that would eventually become home to Lower.com Field. That Kelly captured both dreams long before construction crews assembled in either locale is especially moving in retrospect.
The film contains many of the highlights one would expect, such as the #SaveTheCrew rally at City Hall, the Respect Your Roots tifo, and even behind-the-scenes #SaveTheCrew leadership meeting footage. And, of course, the celebration at Endeavor when the word leaked that the Crew had been saved is a joyous moment to relive on screen, complete with the Josh Williams cameo.
There are other unique passages that really stand out. Kelly spends time at a game with Justin Meram’s family when the winger returned to Columbus in 2018. He also offers a portrait of passionate young Crew fan Kenadi Crye (aka @CrewBeeHappy) of The Hive. She steals every scene she’s in.
What will likely be most interesting to people in both Columbus and Austin is the footage Kelly shot at Austin City Council on the date of the stadium vote. Precourt’s body language betrays him on many occasions, especially as he is forced to make concession after concession to the city after painting himself into a corner by focusing exclusively on only one of his “parallel” paths. Lacking any leverage whatsoever as a return to Columbus was impossible at that point, the unspoken yet visible contempt Precourt subconsciously displays as Austin extracts one concession after another from him is fascinating viewing. So is his cowardly retreat from an impromptu post-vote admonishment from Councilwoman Leslie Pool, a justified Precourt skeptic who rankled many Austinites with her due diligence, although her pushback ultimately contributed to a better deal for the city.
In the end, Save The Crew: The Battle for Columbus is a movie with multiple happy resolutions. The soccer fans of Austin got an MLS team to call their own and did so without the permanent baggage of stealing the first club in MLS. Even Precourt got what he wanted in the end, a discount expansion team for Austin. Although he had to concede on some stadium issues at his third-choice site, there’s no doubt he came out ahead in the end. (Well, other than the immense reputational damage that will follow him in American soccer circles for the rest of his days.) But most importantly, in all these happy endings, it’s Columbus Crew fans who won in every conceivable way: saving their team, better and truly committed ownership, a magnificent downtown stadium, and a 2020 MLS Cup championship, which serves as the perfect capstone for the film.
Years in the making, Kelly’s documentary captures so much that wouldn’t have otherwise been chronicled, and he’s assembled it into an accurate and moving narrative. During a recent conversation, he told me, “Once I started rolling film, I started to feel a moral responsibility to keep going… While you guys were busy saving the Crew, I felt I was busy saving the story.”
With The Battle for Columbus, #SaveTheStory is affirmed to be every bit as successful as #SaveTheCrew.
My latest book “A Massive Collection, Volume 1” is now available!
Also, for those who like to support local businesses, signed paperback copies are available at Prologue Bookshop in the Short North.