'They'll remember this forever!' - How the Columbus Crew went from the brink of extinction to MLS Cup champions

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Heading into Saturday night's MLS Cup finale, there was little reason to believe in the Columbus Crew. Facing the Seattle Sounders - a dynasty in the making - without two of their most important players, the Crew were seemingly set up to fail. 

But this is a team that, if not for the intervention of their own fans a few years ago, would not exist. This is a team whose recent history is defined by its ability to rise from the dead, to defy odds and to survive when they had little hope of doing so.

On Saturday, the Crew did more than survive; they celebrated. They defied all expectations, exceeded even the biggest optimist's best hopes. As the confetti fell to close a season that was memorable for all the wrong reasons, the Crew hoisted MLS Cup, having stared down adversity one last time and stunned the Sounders, 3-0.

That will be the word that will define this 2020 season: adversity. This was a year like no other, and an MLS season unlike any that came before it. It was a season defined by the pandemic and the havoc it wreaked.

Like everyone else, the Crew weathered that havoc. They overcame the setbacks and the changes. They battled through the positive tests, including the ones that kept Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos out of MLS Cup. And they came out the other side, trophy in hand.

"When we have adversity, and I say this all the time, you can be PTSD or you can be PTG, and PTG is post-traumatic growth," said head coach Caleb Porter. "I actually believe that you grow more than ever in adversity. I grew more than ever this year, my team and my players have grown more than ever, and so when we have adversity like this week, we use it the right way.

"We handle it the right way because, in life, there's a lot of adversity. There's a lot of ups and downs. You get bloody. I'm an underdog, I've been bloodied a lot, won a lot. I've had to fight for everything I've gotten."

He added: "I do this for the players. I do this for moments like today. I do it for the guys in that locker room. I love every one of them. That's what life's about."

Even aside from the pandemic, which is admittedly hard to push aside, the 2020 season was set to be a memorable one for the Crew. This season was the Crew's last at MAPFRE Stadium, a cathedral of American soccer that fittingly got to host one last big game.

The Crew will move into a new home next season, moving from MLS' first soccer-specific stadium into a venue worthy of the league's growth. And that move will serve as a reminder of this team's survival because nights like Saturday were so close to never happening.

Just three years ago, this was a team left for dead. Owner Anthony Precourt was determined to bring this team to Austin, citing the team's need for a new stadium and his desire to survive as a small-market club. 

Eventually, Precourt got his Austin move, although he was unable to drag the Crew with him. After nearly a year that saw the Crew march towards its seemingly inevitable fate, the #SavetheCrew movement worked. Precourt got his team, an expansion franchise that will begin play next year, and the Haslam family and longtime team physician Dr. Pete Edwards stepped in to save the team and keep them in Columbus.

Just two years later, the team that was so close to being erased hoisted MLS Cup. The team that was saved has now become the team that won it all.

"It was just me thinking about what the fans and the community, and everyone behind the Save the Crew movement [did] for this to be possible today," said Crew captain Jonathan Mensah, who was in tears shortly after he hoisted the trophy high.

"It is by their efforts and their fight off the field, their determination, their resilience that got us to where we are now to be able to accomplish this mission. So it was so emotional for me, because I was a part of the group about to move, but thankfully the fans did the massive job they did. Yeah, I needed to pour it all out for them."

It was a run led by head coach Porter, the former Akron boss who returned to Ohio and led the Crew to glory. It was led by a true star like Lucas Zelarayan, the man of the match who more than justified the Crew's decision to sign him this winter for the club's largest-ever transfer fee with two goals on Saturday night.

And it was also created by a player in Aidan Morris, the 19-year-old homegrown starlet who filled in for Nagbe while becoming the youngest-ever player to start an MLS Cup final.

Columbus Crew MLS Cup GFX

For Porter, this was a second MLS Cup, making him the third coach in MLS history to win this trophy with two different franchises. He joins MLS icons Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena in reaching that mark, solidifying his own place in MLS history in the process.

His first MLS title, quite ironically, came on this very field. Just five years ago, Porter's Portland Timbers came into MAPFRE Stadium, scored within 30 seconds, and never looked back. For some time, it looked like that may be the Crew's last great chance at glory, and that idea made Saturday's moment even sweeter for Porter, the man that helped lead this team back from the depths.

"I hate losing," a reflective Porter admitted after the game. "I mean there's nothing I hate more in life. I'm scared of failure. I'm scared of losing. I hate it. That drives me every day."

He added: "People don't realize how hard it is to win a trophy, and, the fans, I just felt so good for them because they deserve that. They've been through a lot.

"To some extent, I think they were never going to like me until I brought a trophy home. And I knew that when I took the job, that it would be a catch 22. They'd be happy I came, but only if I won that trophy for them."

As the final whistle blew and Porter's Crew sealed that trophy, the head coach appeared overcome by emotion. His fists were pumping and his legs began moving. The Crew boss darted around the stadium, taking a victory lap to celebrate this team's achievement in front of all of those fans he so desperately wanted to impress.

And what an achievement Saturday was. Two years ago, this was unthinkable. Even just yesterday, this was unimaginable. But, in Columbus, the Crew tend to survive the unimaginable.

This sport is such a small part of what the world has faced during this pandemic but sometimes those small parts offer the most important of lessons.

When we do eventually look back at how 2020 played out in American soccer, right at the forefront will be the defiant Columbus Crew, a club that has shown how much you can overcome with just a little bit of hope.

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"They'll remember this forever," Porter said. "I believe in leaving legacies, making history. That's what sports are about. We left a legacy.  Everybody's gonna remember 2020... 2020 is going to be a year in this club's legacy that everybody's going to talk about, these players are going to talk about. These fans are going to remember it and these players are going to remember it.

"Life is short. Life is short and sports bring a group together to ignite a community. To make memories with that group of guys in the locker room, that is what it's about.

"It's not about the money, it's not about, as much as you think, ego or fame. It's about the simple stuff: winning together and bringing a community together."