Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Clouds Lifted, the Gate Opened

2013 was a crazy year for pre-SC Columbus Crew. Calling it a transition year doesn't quite do it justice. The headline was new ownership and a terminated Crew lifers. Beneath that is the actual play of the players going through it at the time. The season didn't stop for them to re-evaluate things, or, because of MLS rules that restrict player movement more than collegiate players, explore other options with other teams. These guys were stuck.

Hope came in the only form of freedom it could. With Robert Warzycha gone, interim coach Brian Bliss brought in a fresh breath of clean air. Things had gotten so poisonous with Warzycha that, with him gone, you could almost feel the players levitating on the pitch when they took on Houston back in September of 2013.

It was round 27 and early in post-Warzycha days. You could sense the unknowns in the voices and faces of everyone in the organization - part nervousness, part excitement, part gulag gates opening. An absolute storm within the oldest MLS franchise that had settled into MLS comfort after a successful run just a few years earlier.

It was an Higuain-less game. Most everyone expected the Crew to just roll over for the rest of the season. Brian Bliss decided to let the players play. Looking back, maybe there wasn't any other option. At the time it looked like he made it, though. Regardless. Players played like they were 10 feet tall. Maybe there was a hint of a burden being lifted off the fans as well.

The 18 vs. Houston...
Matt Lampson
Chad Barson
Eric Gehrig
Chad Marshall
Tyson Wahl
Ethan Finlay
Wil Trapp
Bernardo Anor
Justin Meram
Ryan Finley
Dominic Oduro
Tony Tchani
Konrad Warzycha
Jairo Arrieta
Shawn Sloan
Daniel Withrow
Ben Speas
Agustin Viana

This was the first time we got to really see what all these Reserve players had. Up to this point we'd only seen glimpses of why they were brought in. It's too easy to say they arrived during this match. They didn't. But fans were able to understand why these guys were on the roster.

Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp and even Chad Barson and Tyson Wahl all proved themselves. In a weird way, it also might explain why the franchise toppled over. The team was young, inexperienced and not part of the 2008-2010 group where most of the coaches and admin staff made their Crew careers.

Bliss somehow tapped into all of this. We get so many nothing games in MLS, but this game oozed spirit.

We are nearly three years on now, but this game stands out as one of the most important in recent team history. Opta has it rated in the top five Columbus performances since 2013. Remarkable, considering the situation.

I, myself, thought that this team would get run over the remainder of the season. A hole too deep. Too much change. Too young. Too much dark funk to fumigate out of the offices and in the hearts of the players. That's what we've seen over in over, isn't it?

Didn't happen. Credit likely goes to many across the board. Maybe it's one of those "iron sharpens iron" moments we rarely get to see in MLS. Whatever it was, this match stands tall. It's certainly shaped the current roster that fans will see play the Houston Dynamo tonight.

If you happen to attend the game tonight. Skip the damn "craft brew festival," and watch the game. MLS might be missing many (many) things that make this sport so special, but THIS is a wonderful sliver the game. This is why we watch.

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