What could have been a wake becomes a history-nodding celebration

The night of Aug. 15, Austin City Council voted to move forward with a soccer stadium, seemingly solidifying Anthony Precourt's plan to move Columbus Crew SC to Texas. The next day, Kyle Martino tweeted at his fellow former Crew players: “It may be time for a trip to Cbus. What do you say boys?”

Soon, an assortment of Crew alumni announced plans for an event on Sunday, Oct. 28, the day of the Crew's last regular season match. In mid-October, days after news broke that a deal was being brokered to keep the Crew in Columbus, Martino revealed the event was a Legends Game between the former Crew players. Appropriately, it would be played next to Mapfre Stadium at Ohio History Connection.

Other than the absence of promised luminaries like Stern John and Robert Warzycha, it all went down as planned. At 11 a.m. Sunday, fresh off a night of reunion drinking at Callahan's, out marched a matchday roster's worth of Crew alums. Alongside them was longtime team physician Dr. Pete Edwards, one of the parties in talks to buy the team from Precourt.

A skeptic could have sneered at the sight of middle-aged men bumbling across a shoddy makeshift pitch that wasn't even flat. Objectively, there was nothing major-league about this extremely DIY event. But once the game got cooking, for anyone emotionally invested in Crew soccer, it was all good vibes and hardcore nostalgia tripping. Last fall, I wrote that moving the Crew would mean ripping my childhood away. The sight of so many players from the team's first decade brought that childhood rushing back.

Amplifying the elation was a degree of playful camaraderie you'd hope for in a pickup game among old friends. Brian McBride attempted a bicycle kick as if the '90s never ended. Dante Washington scored four goals then switched to goalie just because. After the first of Martino's six(!) goals, he celebrated like he'd won the World Cup. Some of the fatter and grayer among them just seemed happy to be on a soccer field.

All the while, J.D. “T-Bone” Smith from 97.1 The Fan provided play-by-play, punctuated by deadpan one-liners from Save the Crew mouthpiece Morgan Hughes. Some were current: “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades and moving your team to Austin.” Others were arcane: “Dante Washington has been traded to the Dallas Burn.”

Such references made perfect sense to the old-school faithful. Gather enough people who care about the return of Billy Thompson, David Winner and Jason Farrell, and it can't help but feel like a family affair. For many, it literally was a family affair. That included Martino, whose young children looked on, catching glimpses of their dad's former life.

Martino is an NBC soccer analyst, part owner of Spanish club RCD Mallorca, and chairman of Street Soccer USA, an organization geared toward democratizing access to the game in America. He ran for president of US Soccer earlier this year. But once upon a time, he played four seasons and change in Columbus, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2002 and helping the team win its first two trophies.

Years later, he still cares deeply about his old club — enough to help organize a mass pilgrimage in case Sunday turned out to be the last Crew home game.

“I think for all of us, we were upset with what was going on,” Martino told me Sunday. “We were sad that we may lose a club that gave me, personally, my dream come true: to play professional soccer. And so we just wanted to come back in a positive way, get behind Save the Crew, and say, ‘We're here with you; we stand with you. And hopefully there's resolution, but if there isn't, we want one last dance.'”

Against the odds, there is resolution. The Crew is all but saved. Sunday morning, what could have been a bittersweet wake instead felt giddy. Revisiting the franchise's past was so much more fun now that it still has a future.