This MLS team nearly folded. Now, they play for another title

It’s been roughly five years since the Columbus Crew have been saved.

But Tim Bezbatchenko, president and general manager of the reigning Major League Soccer champions, still sees #SaveTheCrew bumper stickers during his 10-minute drive to the team’s facility on a weekly basis.

“I assume many people have probably gotten new cars and moved that sticker to their next car,” Bezbatchenko said with a laugh.

Columbus has a chance to be recognized as the best team in North America when it faces LIGA MX club Pachuca in the Concacaf Champions Cup final at Estadio Hidalgo in Mexico on Saturday at 9:15 p.m. ET. FS1 will broadcast the game.

With a win, the Crew also earn a spot in the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup to compete against soccer giants like Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Inter Milan and Al-Hilal to be crowned the best club in the world.

“The idea when I came here was to put Columbus on the map, the soccer map worldwide,” Crew coach Wilfried Nancy, hired before the 2023 title run, said. “They fought a lot to keep the club. The fans also fought a lot. The city fought a lot. So, we know that they are all proud of us.”

Columbus has become a soccer town, just as much as it’s a football town supporting the Ohio State Buckeyes. Since its current ownership took over in 2019, the Crew have won the 2020 MLS Cup, the 2021 Campeones Cup, and 2023 MLS Cup.

Still, the bumper stickers are a reminder of that contentious two-year battle the franchise and its fanbase endured to stay in central Ohio before becoming a powerhouse in MLS.

“It’s hard to find words to describe the feeling. We look at each other, and think, ‘Is this a dream?’” Bezbatchenko told USA TODAY Sports. “It is moving. It is emotional. It’s much like what soccer provides – moments in life that you remember with those around you that you care about. That’s what the game is about.

‘I think that’s what this community in Columbus has seen with the Crew.”

Former owner Anthony Precourt had a desire in 2017 to move the Crew to Austin, Texas, sparking the #SaveTheCrew movement by diehard fans and local businesses.

Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, their daughter Whitney Haslam Johnson and her husband JW Johnson, and former Crew team doctor Pete Edwards saved the Crew in 2019 with a new stadium and training facility, which opened in 2021, among other commitments.

Columbus governor Mike DeWine and mayor Andrew Ginther also played integral roles locally to save the historic team, the first announced when MLS began in 1996.

“If you look at everything Columbus has achieved since the Haslams bought the club five years ago, it’s remarkable how they have transformed the Crew,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told USA TODAY Sports. “Columbus has become one of the best clubs in our league, and one of the top teams in pro sports in this country. Now they’re in the final of the Champions Cup and a victory away from FIFA Club World Cup.”

Although Precourt eventually got his wish fulfilled with Austin FC (which began play in 2021), the two-year limbo Crew fans experienced from 2017-19 before new ownership stepped in left its mark.

“It was as dire as it could possibly be,” Bezbatchenko said of the Crew’s potential to leave Columbus. “Something resonated with the fans of Columbus to stand up and take action, and it’s incredible that their work led to the team staying in Columbus. Their voices were heard.”

Now, Crew fans are heard cheering loudly as they stroll during their supporters’ parade into Lower.com Field on game days.

The Crew sold out their season-ticket allotment before the season, and have sold out every MLS home match this season. They’re riding a record streak of 24 consecutive sellout crowds (and counting), dating back to last season.

“After being in a really weird scenario like that, to having two MLS Cups in four years, it’s really fulfilling,” said homegrown talent Aidan Morris, who has risen through the organization the past seven years. “We go out there, and not only we’re winning, but we’re creating so many good memories.”

On Saturday night, most Crew supporters will be tuned in from home with hopes their favorite team can beat another Mexican powerhouse in Mexico – like they did against Tigres UANL and Monterrey en route to the Champions Cup final.

Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte surrendered a goal in the third minute of the second leg quarterfinal on the road against Tigres UANL. But he left his mark with two stops in a penalty shootout to help the Crew advance 1-1 (4-3 on PKs) on April 9.

The Crew also smashed Monterrey 5-2 on aggregate score in the semifinal, including a 3-1 win at Monterrey on May 1, to reach the final.

“It was huge for us, not just as a team but as a whole organization. It put some respect on our name. And it gave us momentum moving forward,” Schulte said of the Champions Cup run. “Everyone talks about how hard it is for MLS teams to go down there and win, but it allowed us to believe we can do it.”

Now, the Crew must do it again against Pachuca, a club that hasn’t played since May 11 after being eliminated in the Liga MX Clasura quarterfinals by Club America, the same team it beat to reach the Champions Cup final.

Columbus Crew enters as a +400 underdog on the road, with +310 odds to draw, while Pachuca is a -165 favorite at home, according to BETMGM.

The Crew’s rise to soccer prominence is a successful underdog story, but don’t tell them they’re underdogs.

Especially after everything they endured to reach this point.

“We absolutely are grateful for the Save the Crew moment. It is a critical part of our history and we do not want to move away from that narrative that is a cornerstone of our history. But that said, it is a painful one,” Bezbatchenko said. “At the same time, we want the club to be about winning and trophies, and making the playoffs consistently so those emotions are tied to something positive.”

Added Nancy: “We created this story already, and now, this is the final step.”

This post appeared first on USA TODAY