By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
It was a cold night in November of 2008 inside the confines of Columbus Crew Stadium. The hated rival Chicago Fire were in town for a battle with the winner moving on to the MLS Cup in Los Angeles. US national team and former Crew legend Brian McBride drove home a header to put the Fire on top of Columbus early, but the never-say-die resolve of The Crew fought back, eventually winning 2-1 for the Eastern Conference championship, setting them up for their first MLS Cup victory just a couple weeks later.
Thousands of fans dressed in black and gold sang and celebrated in the north corner of the stadium, the “Nordecke,” as they watched their heroes Frankie Hejduk, Duncan Oughton and Guilermo Barros Schelotto take a victory lap around the pitch with the Eastern Conference trophy.
Just a few short years later, one fan in attendance that night heard his name called by the same Columbus Crew in the MLS Supplemental Draft.
His name is Daniel Withrow.
Withrow, a former standout at Marshall University, was the Conference-USA Co-Player of the Year in 2012 and holds the Thundering Herd record for shutouts.
“It’s always been a dream to play at the highest level,” Withrow said. “Whether that’s here or overseas. When you’re a kid, you dream of playing at the highest level and to do it with a team with the history that Columbus has is pretty special.”
The Crew were founded in 1994 as one of the 10 charter members of Major League Soccer and have the history of owning the first-ever soccer specific stadium in the United States.
Withrow is following in the massive footsteps of previous Columbus netminders like current Tottenham Hotspur Brad Friedel, San Jose Earthquake Jon Busch and recently retired Crew keeper Will Hesmer.
“It’s incredible to be in the same shoes they had,” Withrow said. “It’s surreal. When we played San Jose earlier this season, I got the chance to talk to (Jon) Busch. He’s one of the nicest guys in the world. Growing up, I wish I could meet these guys, and now I’ve had that chance and I’m getting to play with them.”
Withrow is currently listed as the third goalkeeper on The Crew’s depth chart but has an advantage of training under Andy Gruenebaum. Gruenebaum worked his way to the starting position in 2012 after spending six years as the backup to Hesmer.
“I can’t think of a better person to learn from,” Withrow said. “He’s been in my same situation of being a backup. He’s proof that working hard can help you achieve your goals.”
Withrow, who was born in Charleston but grew up in Michigan, said that the mountains of West Virginia will always be special to him.
“Huntington is my second home,” he said. “I still think I owe the city of Huntington and Marshall a lot. Playing for Marshall is special. There’s so much passion in that city for sports, not just basketball and football but everything. I fell in love with it.”
Withrow comes into the league as part of a special generation of soccer fans who grew up with Major League Soccer. The league, in it’s 17th season, has seen steady increase in it’s history. While originally consisting of 10 teams, it has grown to 19 teams with plans for a 20th in 2014.
The growth reflects on the changing American views of soccer. MLS trails only the National Football League in average attendance, while Tuesday night’s United States vs. Mexico World Cup qualifier set records for ESPN with an average of 2.385 million viewers.
It’s worth noting that all 11 starters for the United States either have previously or currently play in Major League Soccer.
“The growth of MLS has been astounding in the last 10 years, not just in physical growth but in player development,” Withrow said. “Developing more and more homegrown players is only going to help the national team in the long run.”
Withrow said he started watching soccer at the age of 12. He fell in love with the game and English Premier League side Chelsea FC and developed a passion for the game. He offers his advice to youngsters who one day dream of playing professionally.
“Just keep playing,” he said. “Soccer is a game that is growing. It’s something you have to be passionate about. You have to be committed, but it can be so rewarding. You can get your ticket into college; you can get all the way up here to this level. You’ll also meet a lot of new people. Some of my best friends have been guys I played soccer with.”
Now Withrow has the honor of playing in front of the Nordecke, in that same corner of the stadium where he once cheered on his team.
“They’re unbelievable,” Withrow said of the Nordecke fans. “It’s definitely the best in MLS. Portland and Seattle have great fans, but the Nordecke is incredible. Whenever I’m warming up, they’re always there cheering me on.”
The Crew are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference with a 2-1-1 record. They’ll next play former West Virginia Mountaineer Ray Gaddis and Philadelphia Union on April 6 in Columbus.