The news around MLS this week has been dominated by the announcement from the Columbus Crew investor/operator Anthony Precourt that he might relocate his team to Austin, Texas if he is unable to secure a new stadium site in Columbus. The plan has sparked outrage among fans of the Crew and empathy from other supporters around the league. A coordinated #SaveTheCrew campaign has come about as a result, and fans across the country — and around the world — are expected to show their support for their counterparts in Columbus at their own teams’ games this weekend.
For San Jose Earthquakes head coach Chris Leitch, who was born in a suburb of Columbus and was a boyhood fan of the club when it began play in 1996, the timing of the news came as a bit of a shock. And though he is busy preparing his team for Sunday’s game against Minnesota United — a game that if the Quakes win, they will qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2012 — the 38-year old rookie coach still had words to share on the potential Crew relocation.
“You’re asking a guy that is obviously going to slant towards Columbus, from a guy that grew up idolizing and watching that team,” said Leitch. “That was the team that really set that spark in me and allowed me to dream about, even though it was far-fetched, to have an opportunity to play with these guys, to aspire to be like those guys. So when you ask me about taking them away from Columbus, and obviously knowing what the soccer scene is like in the area, that is tough one for me to swallow if I’m honest. I am so darn close to it: I watched them, I trained with them, I was drafted by them, I played for them. It’s an extremely tough one for me to take.”
Leitch was drafted by Columbus ahead of the 2002 season after a successful college career with the North Carolina Tar Heels, and he made 13 appearances in his rookie season with his hometown club. He was traded to New York ahead of his sophomore season, came back to Columbus in 2006 for a year, back to the Red Bulls for another spell, before ending his 10-year MLS career as a member of the Quakes. He stayed on with San Jose following his retirement, and has been in a technical role with the club ever since.
Leitch was elevated to head coach midway through this season after Dominic Kinnear was fired. Previously, he was the team’s technical director and had served as interim general manager at the tail end of last season following long-time GM John Doyle’s departure. Leitch now has nearly 16 years of experience within MLS, and he knows that there are many factors that go into the running of a successful league. The potential relocation of the Crew to Austin will certainly not be popular with fans of the club, but Leitch does see the bigger picture.
“I understand the business of it, for sure, one hundred percent, and I know how vital that is for the growth of this league,” said Leitch. “I will say that Major League Soccer as a whole has made extremely wise decisions as it concerns the growth of this league. The owner of the club, Mr. Precourt, I am sure has done his due diligence and he understands the metrics that go behind that and the reasons for a potential move to Austin.”
Leitch is acutely aware that the path forward in Columbus is still uncharted, and he does hold out hope that a resolution will be reached that has more positive than negative effects.
“So to take it full circle, from a guy that is from Columbus, I also have to believe that there are some smart people that are running that ship that can look at the long term strategic plan for the club and determine what’s best.”
Forever the Columbus native and Crew alum, Leitch knows that whatever happens next, the fans that have been with the team from the very beginning to those that have come aboard recently are in for an emotional ride throughout the process, and he can count himself as a part of that group.
“It’s not for me to say, do I agree with it? I don’t, and I know it does hurt.”