I'm still up to my neck in a tifo project, so I'll take a few brief moments to share some quick thoughts before First Kick in Colorado, and the long-awaited beginning of the 2012 Columbus MLS season.

The topic of rivalries comes up in Major League Soccer discussion a lot. There are real rivalries between clubs that are natural derbies for reasons of geographic proximity (Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Chivas USA), and others are carried over from clubs' previous incarnations when they were battling it out in slick 1980s kits that today's 20-somethings post pictures of on Pinterest and would probably drop tickets-to-Bonnaroo-type cash to own (Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders). There are inter-city rivalries born out of decades-old clashes between teams in other sports (New York Red Bulls vs. Philadelphia Union), and some are constructed entirely out of a desperate marketing need for an expansion team to have a rivalry (Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew).  Of course, there are other—sometimes darker, sometimes more politically/culturally nuanced—reasons for rivalries between soccer clubs. For instance, I know that I am looking forward to TFC vs. Montreal Impact and the inevitable week-long discussion between every single MLS commentator/blogger/twitterer as they delve into the ancient intra-Canadian freaque-show that those two European beaver-pelt outposts have had going on with each other since the 17th century, or whenever.

Then there are the rivalries that grow out of results. For example, in 2010, the conflict between Columbus and Real Salt Lake burned hot. The 2009 Columbus Crew were an unquestioned MLS power, taking the Supporters Shield for the second consecutive season, going into the MLS Cup Playoffs as the odds-on favorite to, if not repeat as champions, then, at least, represent the Eastern Conference in the cup final. And then, there came Real Salt Lake: a less-lauded qualifier with a below .500 record from the West playing in the Eastern Conference bracket. By all fair expectations, the Crew should've handled their business, defeated RSL, and moved on towards claiming their destined title as the best team in MLS history. But the greatest player in the history of the Columbus Crew—and arguably the most talented playmaker in the history of the league—was inexplicably held out of the first leg of the Crew-RSL tie on a coach's decision; a decision that contributed heavily to a disastrous 1-0 loss in Utah. Guillermo Barros Schelotto returned to the starting lineup in the second leg at Crew Stadium, scored two amazing goals in the first 35 minutes, and brought the Crew back from the dead. But the edge was lost after the first leg, and so was the title defense. The defending champion Crew failed to understand a fundamental law of sports: never give a lesser opponent a chance. 

The Crew felt that they were the better team in 2009, and they had the Supporters Shield to prove it. But in this league, the champion is determined by a tournament because this is America and Americans love a tournament, no matter how convoluted it is in format or concept. So, the next year when William Hesmer was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch as saying...
"They're walking around as a champion, saying they're the champion. They were sub-.500 last year. That doesn't sit well with us. We clearly think we've been the class of the league the past two years, and we wanted to prove it."
...he was absolutely right. The Columbus Crew were the class of MLS in the 2008 and 2009 seasons; but not for 2 matches in a postseason. Salt Lake's coach, Mr. Sensitive, Jason Kreis (who couldn't appear more on-edge if he wore hockey skates on the touch line) decided that he was going to go to the "bulletin board material" motif. He dug up Will's quote four months later, spread it around, drilled it into the heads of his players and fans, and, by the day Columbus visited RSL in the 2010 regular season, had soccer supporters in RSL feeling so upset, so disrespected, so victimized, that the scoreboard operator at Rio Tinto Stadium decided to post the quote as the match started, and RSL fans crooned and chanted (apparently, audible to stadium officials) about having carnal knowledge of William Hesmer's grandmother. An interesting strategy for a club seeking to stake their claim as the class of the league.

RSL got the better of Columbus on that day, winning 2-0. And then they followed it up the following March with a Champions League elimination of a Crew side that bore little resemblance to the powerful team of 2008-2010. Those encounters over 2.5 years with RSL were certainly rivalry worthy, and while they were based on what transpired on the pitch between Columbus and Salt Lake, they were fueled by Kreis's constant search for some cheap motivator to keep his team interested (including a shot at the always excellent Crew Stadium groundskeepers before CCL in February).

The Colorado Rapids are different. If there's a rivalry budding between Colorado and Columbus, there's nothing manufactured about it. In 2010, Colorado ended the Crew's season and, even more painfully, ended an era when they defeated Columbus in an epic 2-match tie that was decided by penalty kicks. Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll, Duncan Oughton, and Gino Padula would never play for Columbus again, and the echoes of The 2008 Massive Season faded away. In June 2011, Andres Mendoza (yes, that Andres Mendoza) led Columbus to a 4-1 trouncing of the Rapids on the eve of their MLS Cup celebratory visit to the White House. A slight consolation to those who had been heartbroken by the previous November. But the 2011 season ended when Colorado again took out the Crew in a MLS Cup Playoffs play-in match with a 1-0 victory in which Columbus never looked threatening at all.

It seems that the Colorado Rapids are becoming our ominous mountain to climb, and the Rapids know it.

I have a ton of respect for the Colorado Rapids and their supporters. I'm often asked, if the Eastern European crime syndicate that you're hiding from finds out that you're living in Columbus and you all of a sudden have to pick up and move to some other MLS city and support another team, which team would you support?

My first response to that question is "You can have my Black & Gold scarf when they pry it from my cold, dead hands."

My second response to that question is "Columbus 'Til I'm Assassinated."

My third response to that question is "Eh, probably Colorado." Their team plays hard, tough, attacking soccer. Their fans do good work in support of their team, and they do so with a frank and forthright absence of pomposity, which is refreshing and reminds me of Columbus. Despite the fact that they've ended our Cup quests in consecutive seasons, I've sent the Rapids on with good wishes, and, even though I wasn't necessarily happy, I was, I suppose you could say, glad that they were the side that went on to win the cup in 2010, if it wasn't to be us.

Of course, that good cheer could easily evaporate into the thin Mile High air should a vicious tackle obliterate the ligaments in one of our guy's knees tonight, or should the Dick's Sporting Goods Supporters Terrace suddenly decide to go TFC-ish and drop lit flares on Crew fans. But I don't see that happening.

So, I guess what I'm saying is this: If there is going to be a rivalry between Columbus and Colorado, I welcome it, because it would be a rivalry of a kind that does not really exist in MLS, to be honest. It would be a rivalry between two sides and supporters that, more or less, get along pretty well. It would be a rivalry not based on any discernible geographic relationship, or any overwrought political/cultural conflict, or some quote that a blowhard coach or player manufactures into an offensive slight against an entire city. Instead, Columbus and Colorado could be a derby based on *gasp!* soccer. Seriously, how much freaking fun would that be?

So, I suppose this would be the place on a match day preview for a prediction. Nah. Screw that. Instead, here's my three most CREWcial (again with the puns) points for the 2012 Columbus Crew: 

1. A desperately needed change from 2011 not only toward attack-minded personnel, but also a desperately needed change toward an attack-minded strategy. I've heard or read Robert Warzycha say many, many, many times over the last year that we need to "push for the goals." Enough talk. Do it.

2. Stability in the starting XI. This is absolutely crucial. A lot of this depends on injuries. A lot it depends on management. I'll have more to say about this as the season progresses.

3. Start the season strong, and finish the season stronger. All you have to do is look at 2010 and 2011 to see why this is important. Points were left for the taking at the beginning of last season, and their impact was felt at the end. We wouldn't have had to worry about playing a one-match play-in at Colorado had one of the early season draws been an early season win. Let's try something different and not treat the first 5 matches of 2012 as an extension of the preseason.

Colorado is going to give us an early look at all three of these tonight. With that, there's not much left for me to say. The Mountain is there to climb. Tonight we take our first steps.