It's been an emotional few weeks for those in the central Ohio soccer community such as Dublin Coffman High School senior Emeka Eneli.
The announcement by Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt on Oct. 17 that the team is exploring the possibility of moving to Austin, Texas, after the 2018 season sent shockwaves throughout the club's fan base.
The potential departure also has left many wondering about the future of Crew SC Academy, where might the OHSAA hold future state championship games and what sort of effects it could have on youth who no longer would have a local team to follow.
Eneli began playing for Crew SC Academy when he was 12 and did so through his junior year before helping the Shamrocks reach a Division I state semifinal this fall in his only season playing at the prep level.
"It's been truly sad for me, actually," said Eneli, who will play for Cornell University. "I basically grew up with the Crew and they developed me. The Crew has definitely had a major impact on soccer in central Ohio. They can sign homegrown players, they sponsor multiple events and, most importantly, give kids something to look up to and strive to be."
After being founded in 1994, the Crew began play in 1996 as one of the 10 charter members of Major League Soccer.
In 1999, Columbus Crew Stadium -- now known as Mapfre Stadium -- opened as the first soccer-specific stadium in the United States.
SC, which stands for soccer club, was added to the team's name in October 2014.
A little more than a month ago, Precourt announced he is considering moving the team if plans for a new downtown stadium can't be finalized in the next year.
Crew SC has gone on a playoff run since then and currently is playing Toronto FC in the two-game Eastern Conference finals. The series began Nov. 21 and concludes Wednesday, Nov. 29.
Former Gahanna star Wil Trapp is in his fifth season with Crew SC while another Gahanna graduate, Alex Crognale, is in his first.
The last few weeks have been particularly difficult for the community where Crognale and Trapp grew up.
"As far as I can tell, there's a lot of disappointment because kids have connected with the club, especially in Gahanna because of Wil and Alex," Lions boys coach Matt Kovach said. "Everybody is hoping something happens that will keep the club here."
Youth soccer effects considered
Crew SC got into the youth soccer business when it sponsored nine Crew Juniors teams in 2007.
After U.S. Soccer announced on Feb. 10, 2012, that it would go to a 10-month season for its Development Academy, the Crew added U15-16 and U17-18 teams that fall.
Crew SC now provides fully funded teams at U12, U13, U14, U15-16 and U17-18.
In addition, Crew SC has boys and girls teams in various age groups that compete in other levels during the regular club season.
Despite rumors to the contrary, there are no plans for Crew SC Academy to cease operations at any time in 2018, said Tim Miller, who is the club's director of communications.
"As Precourt Sports Ventures continues to evaluate the options highlighted within their statement from Oct. 17 -- which includes remaining in Columbus -- the Crew SC Player Development program and the Crew SC Academy will continue to provide the same development and competitive platform that players and families have grown accustomed to receiving," according to a statement released by the club.
There are about 100 boys participating year-round, including during the fall prep season, on the U12, U13, U14, U15-16 and U17-18 teams in the Crew SC Player Development program.
The possible closure of the club's developmental programs in future years would have ramifications for prep programs if those players were to begin competing for their high schools.
"Soccer will stay strong because there are so many strong clubs around the area even if the Crew move," Kovach said. "(Crew SC Academy) does take high-level players from high school teams, but that can open up a spot for a kid that had been behind that player on the depth chart, so it has its good and bad. U.S. Soccer has to have an understanding that Columbus is a hotbed for soccer players."
Olentangy Liberty senior Wesley Collins, who was a first-team all-OCC-Buckeye Division defender for a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation during parts of the 2017 season, believes the future closure of Crew SC Academy would have a ripple effect.
"Central Ohio has several other great clubs, so I don't feel like it would be hard for them to find another club to play for if the Academy did disappear," Collins said. "It would definitely make high school soccer more competitive. Even adding one new person to a high school soccer team could have a huge impact on the culture or play there."
Future of state finals undetermined
For the 19th consecutive season this fall, the boys and girls state championship games for Divisions I, II and III were held at Mapfre Stadium.
Before the 2016-17 school year, the OHSAA signed a five-year contract extension to keep the state finals at the site through 2020.
Mapfre Stadium is owned by Precourt Sports Ventures.
"You can't believe how many calls we've gotten from people wanting (the OHSAA) to buy (Mapfre Stadium)," assistant commissioner Jerry Snodgrass said. "We don't have $31 million laying around."
According to Snodgrass, some involved in the Ohio Scholastic Soccer Coaches Association would prefer holding the championship games in a "more intimate venue."
Although Mapfre Stadium has a seating capacity of 19,968, the combined attendance for the six state finals held in 2016 was 17,762 for an average of 2,960 per game.
"The players and coaches love (being at Mapfre Stadium)," Snodgrass said. "We have a wonderful relationship (with Crew SC). They care about us. They let us use their locker rooms."
Despite being one of the original members of MLS, Columbus ranked just 20th of 22 clubs this season in attendance with an average of 15,439.
Crew SC has a 25-year lease to play at Mapfre Stadium that expires in six years.
In a release sent out by Precourt on Oct. 17, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Crew SC "is near the bottom of the league in all business metrics, and the club's stadium is no longer competitive with other venues" across the league.
Liberty boys coach Marc D'Auteuil, who coached the Coffman girls to state runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2014, is among those concerned about the uncertain future of the team and Mapfre Stadium.
"Just having the Crew in town and having a professional team, just having that presence, has certainly been a positive part of the fabric of central Ohio soccer," D'Auteuil said. "I've been fortunate to have two teams play in state finals in Crew Stadium. Personally, it's a little disappointing, and it's disappointing for the soccer community."
Wellington senior Brad Biehl was the MSL-Cardinal Player of the Year and will continue his soccer career at Elmhurst College in Illinois.
He also lives seven miles from Mapfre Stadium and put out more than 120 #SaveTheCrew signs around Wellington after learning the news of the club's possible departure.
"I've had season tickets for as long as I can remember and consider the Crew to be one of the biggest parts of my life," Biehl said. "I've been at games with a 102-degree fever. I've gone to away games in some pretty far places. ... I also gave a presentation to the entire high school to educate people on the issue (of the team possibly moving) and to rally support for the city. The Crew are everything to me and I'm so upset about the news it's insane."
Biehl has had a professional soccer team nearby for his entire life, and it's not something he takes for granted.
"The stadium certainly is an issue that the local and state government, along with local business groups, need to be focused on," Biehl said. "I don't think people realize how crazy lucky we are to have an MLS team. We have a precious treasure here that I hope we all take some ownership over."
Among the positives Crew SC has brought since its founding, Biehl said, is its charity work such as having players visit children at local hospitals.
According to Collins, Crew SC represents a "goal" for young soccer players to aspire to.
For Dublin Jerome senior Rachel Butler, having the club in town has provided numerous memories.
"(Finding out the Crew might move) was devastating and a shock to all," Butler said. "Going to games as a child and even now was something I and so many other kids looked forward to as we got to watch our idols and dream to be on a stage like they are. The Crew has brought a ton of people together to celebrate soccer. In central Ohio, the soccer community is alive and well."