The Columbus Crew return to action Thursday for the first time since winning the Major League Soccer Cup, and they have the potential to be one of the league’s best teams.

On Dec. 12, 2020, the Crew won their second MLS Cup and first since 2008 to complete one of soccer’s greatest turnarounds. Back in October 2017, then-owner Anthony Precourt announced he was considering moving the team to Austin, Texas.

Columbus is one of MLS’ original franchises and chartered the league in 1996. It also plays in the first soccer-specific stadium in the U.S., Historic Crew Stadium, which is also the site of some of the U.S. men’s national team’s greatest ever victories, most notably the 2-0 win over Mexico in 2001 that helped start the “Dos a Cero” theme between the two nations.

Considering the history of the club and how important it is in the Columbus community, fans were rightfully outraged. This led to the start of the fan-led “Save the Crew” movement, which garnered support from soccer fans all over the country.

The movement ultimately culminated in Browns owner Jimmy Haslam purchasing the team. However, Haslam did not stop there. He invested in the Crew, first with plans to build a new stadium that will debut partway through the upcoming season.

The second round of investment came in the form of Argentinian attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayán, who became the club’s most expensive transfer in December 2019. Zelarayán rewarded Haslam’s spending with a brilliant season, culminating with two goals and an assist in the MLS Cup Final.

With fans returning to the stands as vaccines become more readily available, there are plenty of off-field reasons to be excited about Columbus returning to action, but there might be more on-field reasons.

The Crew is coming off a dominant 3-0 victory over Seattle in the MLS Cup Final, and all their major pieces are coming back. Zelarayán will be back, as will the rest of the core of center-back Jonathan Mensah, midfielder Darlington Nagbe and striker Gyasi Zardes.

In addition to the returning players, Columbus has added winger Kevin Molino, who scored eight goals in just 16 games last season, including four in last year’s playoffs. The club has also brought in MLS legend Bradley Wright-Phillips to fill the backup striker role. Wright-Phillips was one of the league’s premier strikers for a long time, and even though he is now 36 years old, his experience will help the Crew remain at the top of the league this season.

Columbus’ season starts with two matches in the round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions League, a competition that pits the best teams in North America against each other. No MLS team has ever won this competition, but the Crew is primed to make a serious run at a title in addition to their attempt to repeat as MLS Cup champions. 

Columbus has both the top-end talent and depth to compete on all fronts this season. It should be in contention for not only another MLS Cup but also the Supporters’ Shield, which is given to the league’s best regular season team, and the aforementioned CONCACAF Champions League.

Whether the Crew’s season ends with more success or not, there will be many great moments throughout the year. From the home opener where fans will get to celebrate the team’s MLS Cup win to the final game at Historic Crew Stadium to the opening of the brand new stadium, this season will surely be one to remember.

The bottom line is that with everything the Crew and their fans have overcome to get to where they are now, this season is going to be a year-long celebration of the club that brought a city together. Attending a game should be on everyone’s to-do list this summer once they are vaccinated, whether they are a soccer fan or not.

@willocunningham

wc425318@ohio.edu