COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Frankie Hejduk is in his element. The skies are cloudy, with a late fall chill in the air. But on the corner of North High and East Goodale, he's standing next to a 1,600-pound, 15-foot-high replica of MLS Cup while sporting the colors of his beloved Columbus Crew. Hejduk is so pumped, in fact, that more than once he jumps off the 5-foot-high stand the trophy replica sits on as if he were navigating a half-pipe on a skateboard.
"As an ex-player, I'm so happy, dude," Hejduk said. "I'm so proud of the guys and just excited for what's about to happen."
What's about to happen is Columbus hosting MLS Cup for the third time in nine seasons, with Saturday's tilt set to take place against the reigning champion, LAFC. A win would mark the third time the Crew have prevailed in the title game, joining the 2008 and 2020 teams, with Hejduk a part of the former, even scoring in that year's final.
Yet the vibe this time around is distinctly different from that of either of those championship teams, or even the 2015 side that fell in the final to the Portland Timbers. One gets the sense of a soccer town being made whole. This is a club, after all, that in 2017 was about to be relocated to Austin, Texas, only for the grassroots movement, Save the Crew, to sprout up and galvanize local support to the extent that the team stayed put and new ownership was found.
Even the 2020 title wasn't as cathartic as one might expect. It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and only 1,500 fans were allowed in the stands for the 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders. Crew players Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos had to sit out the final after testing positive for COVID-19. Nagbe watched the game outside with his wife on their patio before resuming his quarantine in his basement. There was no parade afterward.
"It was a weird day," Nagbe told ESPN. "Obviously, familiar teams playing and you can't be a part of it."
Since then, a new 22,000-seat stadium, Lower.com Field, has been built. First-year manager Wilfried Nancy has been brought in, with an aesthetically pleasing style to match. The momentum generated has been everything fans had hoped. On Saturday, the stands will be at capacity with mostly Crew fans, with a few LAFC supporters in the mix.
One example of the warm embrace between club and team is that every Wednesday since the playoffs started, there's a reverse car wash -- sponsored appropriately by a local car wash chain -- where Crew staffers will decorate fans' cars in the Crew colors of black and gold.
"We're in the renaissance era of soccer in Columbus right now, and we have everything going for us," said David Miller, who handled communications for the Save the Crew movement. "And it's because the community came through and saved this team and proved that we can sustain it that the future is incredibly bright.
Columbus Crew captain Darlington Nagbe speaks about what it means to reach the MLS Cup final.
"We have this roster that is extremely talented. I'm looking for MLS Cup No. 4 and 5 coming in the next couple of years. There's no reason not to expect that with what we have here."
Asked to describe the vibe around the Crew these days, Chris LaMacchia, communications director for the Nordecke supporters group, put it succinctly. "It's a lot louder."
In terms of the run-up, it hasn't been all sweetness and light in Ohio's capital city. On Monday, Crew season-ticket holders were supposed to have access to a window in which they could buy tickets to Saturday's final. But an access code for sponsors to purchase tickets was leaked on social media, and the tickets were quickly snapped up before the season-ticket holder window could even open. That included the Nordecke, which is the part of the stadium where the team's most die-hard supporters reside.
"I logged in and [almost] the whole stadium was gray. There were some blue spots, but nothing in the Nordecke," said Luke Johnston, a member of the Nordecke Brass, a group of eight fans who bring their horns into the stadium and play alongside the drum line. "My heart just dropped because it was like if I have to get a ticket somewhere else and I can't get into Nordecke, this isn't going to work. I could bring my trumpet and play in another part of the stadium, but it's not the same thing."
Panic set in among supporters and the Crew organization. They were facing the prospect of an MLS Cup final minus the atmosphere that had helped make Lower.com Field a fortress during the season, with the Crew going 12-1-4 at home. There would be no Nordecke. No chanting. No drum line. No Nordecke Brass. No tifo.
"We've got a 40-foot-by-60-foot piece of art we're going to lift. You can't just do that with one person," LaMacchia said. "It takes a small army to pull off a game-day atmosphere for a normal home game, and here we were looking at doing it with five or 10 people."
The Crew front office reached out to MLS, which reached out to Ticketmaster. Ultimately, the transactions bought with the leaked access code were reversed. Some damage had been done, however. LaMacchia noted how one fan bought a $1,200 "ledge seat" -- already one of the pricier seats in the venue -- when it looked as if he wouldn't get in the stadium at all. But on Tuesday another purchase window was created, and season-ticket holders were able to get tickets.
"It has been stressful -- more stressful than anything that I've been through as a supporter group leader, simply because of all of the uncertainty," LaMacchia said. " People tend to panic and lash out. I think I've been called every name in the book this week somewhere on Twitter or Reddit, but I mean, that comes with the territory. It's just a lot of it is due to the uncertainty from Monday and Tuesday of, 'Are we going to have tickets?'"
LAFC's Maxime Crépeau looks back on his leg break in last year's MLS Cup and previews the clash against Columbus.
Almost lost in the shuffle is the fact that LAFC is trying to join some select company. A win on Saturday would make manager Steve Cherundolo's side just the fourth in league history to win back-to-back MLS Cups. It would also serve as another way to needle crosstown rivals the LA Galaxy, given that the Galaxy are the most recent team to win consecutive titles, having done so in 2011 and 2012.
To celebrate the occasion, LAFC's ownership is chartering two flights, including all staff, player family members and special guests. (Olly the Falcon is not making the trip, however.) With about 500 members of the 3252 supporters group heading to Columbus, the LAFC contingent will be well represented.
In the context of the 2023 season, Cherundolo told ESPN the campaign had been "tedious" and "hard work." There have been some bright moments, but also the blows of losing the Concacaf Champions League final to Leon, and the Campeones Cup to Tigres. That said, he views the season as a success and doesn't feel burdened by any added pressure.
"I don't think we're really caught up in the moment at all. I think we're just focused on trying to win another game and not so much what would it mean and this and that," Cherundolo said. "I think we just look at this as one game and we're going to try to win this game."
LAFC has navigated its way through the playoffs featuring an approach opposite to that of the Crew. While Columbus is all possession and crisp combinations, LAFC has taken counterattacking to the extreme, winning the Western Conference final against the Houston Dynamo with just 30.9% possession. It makes sense given the dynamism of Dénis Bouanga and Carlos Vela in the open field, yet the contrast in styles is still jarring. Cherundolo once told ESPN that "there are a lot of different ways to win a soccer game," and he seems determined to prove that adage correct.
"I absolutely stand by those words still, and that's how I coach the teams that I coach," Cherundolo said in an exclusive interview. "And for me, it's great to have a style of play, but it's more important to have solutions in each phase. And for me, I don't need them. The players need them. So my job is to give the players the tools to win games, to defend the goal if need be, but also to score goals if a team is in a lower block.
"What I think separated us from everybody else last year was I think we were the most complete team, and I think we have shown this year we can also win games in any fashion or manner. And that to me, if you want to put me in a box, would be my style, to be able to win in every way, with the ball and without the ball."
LAFC has its own version of Nagbe, at least from an emotional standpoint. Goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau broke his leg in last year's MLS Cup final, and thus missed out on the celebration that took place when the Black and Gold won the subsequent penalty shootout.
Crépeau has made it back this season to play a huge role in LAFC's road to the final, especially in the conference semifinal against Seattle. He says he has had "a huge smile" on his face the whole week and is enjoying his football again. The question is then posed about how hard is it to find that enjoyment when each game is packed with pressure and knowing setbacks can pile up.
"It is very easy because when you have a certain amount of time away from the game -- it took me nine, 10 months-ish -- you tend to forget how fun it is to be with your teammates on the field, to give it your all, how fun it is to win. You miss those feelings. So when I say that, it's just being able to [surround] myself with the players around me and my teammates and really to win games."
Yet the Crew are determined to have their moment not only in terms of Saturday but because of where the team has been. And what it could be. That includes Hejduk, the team's No. 1 fan. He says more than once that he has 30,000 friends in the stadium. Given the sheer magnetism and charisma of the man, one is inclined to believe him.
"Dude, the joy of what I always wanted here in Columbus was for this to be a soccer town, and those fans made it," he said. "I hope we made them proud as players doing the same thing. And I think the players that you're going to see on Saturday are just following our footsteps, man. We're making the city proud and they're making the city proud and it kind of all is a big family."