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Columbus to Austin is a breach of MLS faith

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If it can happen to Columbus, it can happen anywhere

Chivas USA v Columbus Crew Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

My mom was born in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn, and later moved 17 blocks from Ebbets Field. She grew up watching Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, and yes, even Jackie Robinson. She split her childhood between Brooklyn and Mexico City, but to this day, she still identifies as being from Brooklyn. The Dodgers were central to that identity; after the team left for Los Angeles, she basically stopped following baseball, and really, all sports.

I grew up in a small Ohio town -- Granville, to be exact. Growing up, I became an Indians fan, a Cavs fan -- and yes, a Browns fan. The idea that a team like the Browns could simply pick up sticks and ditch a town like Cleveland was inconceivable. I knew all about the Dodgers leaving from my mom, but I thought that was something in the past. Not something that would happen in, say, 1995.

And then Arthur Bertram Modell broke faith with a city, and did just that. I was a freshman in college, and I watched the team I grew up adoring play out a desultory autumn in Municipal Stadium. I made the road trip up to Cleveland for the last home game the original Browns ever played. I was 19, unfamiliar with tragedy and heartbreak, besides the picayune kind that every youth is acquainted with -- a broken heart, not getting your way on a trivial thing or another. I saw grown men crying. Not just crying; sobbing. Not just sobbing; wracked with grief, heaving back and forth and to and fro, devastated in only the way that a broken dream and a broken marriage can devastate someone.

Because, for a lot of people, that's the kind of emotional investment you put into a team. And when you break faith like Modell did with Cleveland, or Robert Irsay did with Baltimore, that's the kind of emotional wreckage you leave behind. And every time it happens, people lose just a little bit more faith in the institutions that bring us together.

Those scenes haunt me to this day. It's been 22 years, and I have to tell you: I haven't been an NFL fan since that day. Oh, I'd love it if the Cleveland Browns were to somehow -- despite the futility that is bred deeply into their DNA -- win a playoff game, let alone make it to the Super Bowl, let alone win it. But I'd be lying if I were to tell you that my connection with this version of the Browns was anything like the one I had with the team that left for Baltimore. It isn't. It cannot be. That team broke my heart as a kid when it lost games to Denver, and it obliterated it when it moved to Baltimore.

If there's any team that embodies a grassroots team in MLS, it's Columbus. Alan Rothenberg and the rest of the MLS honchos awarded a team to Columbus simply on the strength of 10,000 tickets being sold to a fanbase that desperately wanted a professional soccer team. No other MLS team can claim that. It was the original, the first. You don't need me to reiterate the history. Before Toronto, before Seattle and Portland and Kansas City and Atlanta and all the other shiny cities and stadia that MLS loves to milk for marketing purposes, there was Columbus.

See that picture up top? That’s the Nordecke. The Crew were the very first team I ever bought season tickets to, in 1996. One of the very first stops I made after I got back from Army basic training was to then-Crew Stadium, just to check it out. My mom had sent me news clippings during boot camp. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been there, for both Crew games and national team games.

Sports team owners like Anthony Precourt like talking about how their teams are a civic institution. But that's all a pack of sweet lies, sold in service of a willing fantasy, devoured by people eager to believe it. You want to know what a civic institution is? A school. A park. A monument. You don't hear about Goodale Park and Schiller Park ditching Columbus -- the city I grew up thinking of as a "big city" -- in pursuit of desired demographics. You don't hear about Columbus Academy abandoning Columbus in pursuit of a better student base or better test cores.

At 10:51 p.m., Grant Wahl broke a story that anyone who follows or writes about sports dreads: a team was abandoning one town for another. But this isn't just any team, and this isn't just any town. The Columbus Crew SC were quitting Columbus, Ohio, for the apparently more verdant pastures of Austin, Texas.

And now there won't be. There won't be, because Anthony Precourt wants to move the team he owns to Austin, Texas, in pursuit of soccer hipsters and a shiny downtown stadium and who knows what else. No one does, least of all Precourt, who's reduced to babbling incoherently about how "they've seen new markets be successful". That sure inspires confidence about his ability to succeed in a place where soccer will rank ahead of college football in interest -- oh, wait, it won't.

See the folks in the picture above? Those folks — folks I went to grade school, high school, college with — are losing their team.

This is a travesty. It makes a mockery of the compact that every fan makes with any team they follow: I will give you my heart and loyalty, and you will honor it, not abandon it.

But in my life, I've seen football abandon Cleveland, hockey abandon a host of cities, baseball abandon Montréal, and basketball abandon Seattle. I was more the fool to believe that soccer wouldn't abandon the one city that gave it meaning and heart. Columbus gave MLS its love, its devotion, and its loyalty. And the league is repaying that with a middle finger.

I’ll ask you for one favor: if you want to know more about this story, and the Crew, and its fans, visit Massive Report. They could really use your support.