Winner grew up in South Florida. He went to college in Tampa. Sunshine was all he knew. With cousins living in Columbus, he was aware of its existence and he knew that’s where Ohio State University is located. He also knew it had an Anheuser-Busch brewery because he saw it when he was a member of the U.S. National B Team and they came to town for a 1995 exhibition match against the Columbus Xoggz.
“That stood out as a landmark for Columbus,” he says with a chuckle. “Pretty much, growing up in South Florida, I didn’t know too much about Columbus.”
Upon being drafted by the Crew and coming north for the team’s first training camp, he quickly learned he wasn’t in Florida anymore. Having experienced snow once in his childhood during a rare South Florida flurry in 1977, his first days in Central Ohio were something to behold.
“One of my first practices, we had a five mile run and it was sleeting,” he says. “The hotel they put me up in was over by the Continent. I woke up and there was snow all over the place so I ran outside in shorts and a t-shirt and started doing snow angels. The people in the lobby thought I was crazy.”
When the league announced its first ten clubs, nine of them were in traditional major pro sports metropolitan areas. The league’s charter club, however, was in Columbus. It may not have been the sexiest destination, but Winner, like many of his teammates, saw his expectations turned upside down upon living here.
“I felt like it was a great community,” he says. “With Ohio State, I always thought it was a college town, but on our game days, to see all the people tailgating, it was great. From day one, the city of Columbus seemed to embrace the team and the organization. I think a lot of the guys were pleasantly surprised by how cool the city of Columbus is.”
An original 96er, Winner played with the Crew through part of the 1998 season. With the likes of USMNT goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Juergen Sommer appearing on the Crew’s roster during his tenure, Winner made just 12 appearances (nine starts) in his 2.5 seasons in Black & Gold. That’s part of life as a goalkeeper. Only one guy can play.
“Back early in the league,” Winner says, “they would have the quotes of the week through the PR department or whatever. At one point in 1996, we had four goalkeepers. It was myself, Bo Oshoniyi, Pat Harrington, and then they brought Brad in, so there were four of us. (Columbus Disptach beat writer) Craig Merz comes into the locker room and asks what I thought about there being four goalkeepers on the roster. I kept my sense of humor about it and said, ‘I think it’s great. We have our own fraternity. Alpha Beta Keeper.’”
Despite the crowded goalkeeping landscape and just a dozen appearances, Winner still managed to leave his mark and was a popular player in his time. On the field, Winner’s claim to fame in Columbus was that he excelled at the postgame shootouts that MLS instituted to resolve tie games in the league’s early days. (At the top of this story, there is a YouTube video of Winner allowing only one goal in five attempts during a shootout victory over San Jose on April 19, 1997.) He had a record of 4-2 in the tiebreakers while with the Crew, making him the only Columbus goalkeeper to post a winning record, and his shootout save percentage of 61% was the highest in club history.
“There’s worse things that you can be known for,” he says. “The irony of that was that when I was younger, breakaways and through balls were things I really used to have to work at. My high school coach, Gary Coleman—not from Diff’rent Strokes—he would spend a lot of time with me on that. It was not a strength, but he spent so much time with me that it became a strength, be it through balls or breakaways. So when MLS did that shootout thing, it was something I really enjoyed and was good at.”
Another notable factor in Winner’s popularity was his nickname, “Chucky.” In 1996, during a road trip to New York, the team ate at an old-school Italian restaurant in a basement. The place was dimly lit and, according to Winner, looked like a scene out of Goodfellas. “I was expecting Joe Pesci to pop out from behind the bar.”
The team had a private room, and in the glow of the dim red lights, Uruguayan Adrian Paz picked up his butter knife, pointed at Winner, and started making stabbing motions while saying, “Chooky! Chooky! Chooky!” The team was puzzled at first until they realized Paz was referring to the Child’s Play horror movies.
“The kicker is that Adrian spent a few years in England but didn’t speak a lot of English,” Winner recalls. “But he said, ‘David looks like Chucky! The power is mine! The power is mine!’ We were shocked because that was the most we had heard Adrian talk up to that point. But that’s how I got the nickname and it stuck. It caught on like wildfire. It started with Adrian at dinner and then all the guys started calling me that and then it leaked out to the fans and that was that. I was named after a Satanic killer doll.”
Winner was gone by the time Crew Stadium opened, but he got to play there as a member of the Kansas City Wizards.
“It was great because before the game, I came out and the whole side of the stadium stood up and started cheering for me,” he remembers. “It was a really nice homecoming. And then once the game started, I went to get a ball and a fan threw a beer at me. And then two minutes later Mike Clark comes sliding in late right into my chest. Out of all the guys, Clarkie was one of my closest friends, but he came sliding in late, so it was like, ‘Welcome back to Columbus, Dave.’”
Many years later, Winner would be welcomed back to Columbus again. First, however, there was a decade-long detour. To Texas. Specifically, Austin.
After retiring as a player, Winner took a job as an assistant coach at Rice University in Houston, but he would make visits to a friend in Austin and he felt an immediate affinity for the place. He soon had a job offer at the Lonestar academy club and jumped at the chance to move there.
“I just fell in love with the city of Austin,” he says. “Columbus and Austin are similar in a lot of ways. It’s a really great city. I fell in love with it and lived there for ten years.”
Winner also fell in love with a person. Her name is Ashlee and she is a Cleveland-area native who was an assistant coach at Bowling Green when they met at a soccer tournament. They starting dating, but she broke it off because she had no desire to move to Texas. While Winner was in Florida for the funeral of former Crew coach Tom Fitzgerald, he got a call from Ashlee. They decided to try to make it work. It did. They got married and Austin happily became their home.
Life changed for the Winners in 2013 when Ashlee gave birth to twin daughters. With children now in the mix, she wanted to be closer to her family in Ohio. Winner had fond memories of his time in Central Ohio, and noted that Ashlee moved to Texas for him and never asked for a thing in their marriage, so he jumped at the opportunity to relocate their family from Austin to Columbus. (In light of recent events, with tongue firmly in cheek, he has jokingly told Ashlee that she had a Reverse Precourt Clause in their marriage. “She doesn’t think it’s funny,” he adds.)
Winner moved so swiftly on a return to Columbus that he had a job before Ashlee could even work out a transfer of her own. He joined the Crew working for the academy under former teammate Billy Thompson. Later that year, when Robert Warzycha was relieved of head coaching duties, he briefly became a first team assistant when Brian Bliss was the interim coach. He then took a job at Ohio Premier, where he coaches to this day.
Living in Columbus, he enjoyed having the Crew be a part of his life again. Then October happened.
Winner is no different than anyone who cares about the Columbus Crew. The news of a potential relocation sent his mind reeling.
“I’m really kind of at a loss with what’s going on with the Crew,” he says. “I don’t mind saying that it’s extremely disappointing and it’s very sad. I never would have thought in a million years that this is potentially what could happen. I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone. Is this really happening?”
The timing couldn’t have been worse either. The announcement came on October 17, just as the team was preparing for its playoff push. Winner feels that the team’s run to the conference finals was a testament to the players and coaches as the community rallied around the club.
“I think that speaks a lot,” says. “That announcement puts Gregg (Berhalter) and the coaching staff and the players and the front office staff in an awkward situation. You can see it when Wil Trapp is interviewed. I think it’s tremendous on the players’ part and on the coaching staff’s part that they were able to deflect that. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to win the whole thing, but considering everything that was going on, they overachieved. That would have been incredible to host the championship and win it.”
Adding to Winner’s relocation turmoil is that Crew owner Anthony Precourt’s relocation destination is Austin. Winner knows people in his former home who are clamoring for an MLS team, so it has put his wishes at odds with those of his friends, despite the fact that neither side has any control of the situation. He has opted not to get into pointless online fights because he loves Austin and understands their point of view too.
“I have very close friends in Austin who are excited about it,” he says. “One of them posted about which would be the greatest spot in Austin (for a stadium) and I almost posted, ‘None of the above! They should be staying in Columbus!’ But I didn’t do it. I would 100% love for Austin to have an MLS team, but just not the Crew.”
Further complicating matters is that Winner has close ties to the San Antonio soccer community and has seen firsthand the work that San Antonio FC has put into building toward MLS. All of that work would be undone by a Crew relocation to Austin.
“And so in all of this, there is also a part of me that also feels bad for the city of San Antonio,” he says. “They’ve spent upwards of almost $40 million thinking that they may get an MLS franchise, but this clause with Precourt…”
So that’s THREE cities to which Winner has ties, and two of them could be screwed if this relocation happens. It’s a lot for one man to process.
“The only way I can describe it is that it’s sad.”
While living in Austin, Winner was on Adrian Heath’s coaching staff with the Austin Aztex and saw how owner Phil Rawlins had commissioned all of the usual studies from outside firms about making MLS work there. Rawlins’ conclusion was that MLS would not work in Austin and so he relocated the club to Orlando, where it has since joined MLS.
“I’ll be the first to say that growing up in Florida, I would have said that out of any city in Florida, Orlando wasn’t the best choice, but look how that turned out. It’s been phenomenal.”
Atlanta has followed Orlando and has been an even more surprising success story. There was nothing in Atlanta’s history that suggested they would thrive, much less surpass the Seattle Sounders as a league-altering entrant into MLS, but Atlanta United rewrote the attendance record books.
“I grew up in the era with the (original NASL’s Fort Lauderdale) Strikers and I remember games against the (Atlanta) Chiefs where it looked like there weren’t even 50 people in the stands,” Winner recalls.
And now Nashville has been awarded an MLS team despite no major soccer history to serve as a bedrock. It will likely be a success too. Austin is great city and recent trends show that new MLS teams tend to be embraced out of the chute, so despite the studies done several years ago, it is entirely possible that Precourt has new data or at least a reasonable expectation that MLS could be a success in Austin should he move the Crew there. That is, if Austin lets the relocation of the league’s charter franchise even happen.
“To be fair, you have a lot of people in Austin who are not fully with open arms about it either,” he says. “They are skeptical. People are scratching their heads and wondering if this is something they want to get on board with.”
As Crew fans have fought to save their club via the #SaveTheCrew movement, Winner has taken notice. He also expected nothing less.
“I think it’s phenomenal,” he says. “I think it’s amazing. Even when I’m out and about around town, the local Roosters has a sign, so it’s not just the fans. It’s even the local businesses.”
If Precourt succeeds in moving the team, Winner hopes that Columbus will receive the Cleveland Browns / San Jose Earthquakes treatment whereby the name and records are retained and a replacement team is granted. There are any number of other ways to resolve this issue as well, so Winner ideally hopes that the Crew will remain rooted to their true home.
“I’m just really hoping that something good will come out of this,” he says. “The league, however they want to do it, I mean, I love reading these article about Beckham in Miami. They keep using the words ‘deep discount.’ Deep discount. So Don Garber can give Anthony Precourt a deep discount and give him a team in Austin and leave the team here in Columbus.”
Whatever twists and turns await Columbus and Austin (and San Antonio) in the coming months, Winner has some simple advice for the #SaveTheCrew movement.
“Keep the faith,” he says. “Even if they were to leave, you would hope there would be the Crew 2.0. There would be a new ownership that would keep the Crew here. Be hopeful and have faith. That’s all any of us can do right now. Be hopeful for whatever happens.”
I can be reached at [email protected] or via twitter @stevesirk
If you would like more information on the #SaveTheCrew movement and how you can help, please visit www.SaveTheCrew.com