By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 30, 2021) US Soccer Players – Back in 1999, there was hardly a thing called a soccer-specific stadium. In a country that had only just launched a topflight a few years before, the idea of a building purposely built for soccer was, well, ridiculous.
When Crew Stadium opened in 1999, it was not state-of-the-art. It didn’t have suites. Planners reserved one end of the venue for a stage, the better to maximize the revenue-generating capabilities of the building. It also sat nowhere near Columbus’s vibrant downtown but instead on the edge of a vast parking lot, abutting an interstate. A roof covered none of the seats. The seats themselves were bleachers, not the individual stadium seating that was, even then, the standard for professional sports venues.
There wasn’t much fancy about Crew Stadium, but that was okay. Just getting a soccer stadium built in the United States, even if it did take investor/operator Lamar Hunt spending $30 million of his own money to get it done, was a triumph. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. No one pined much for the missing bells and whistles when soccer in the county hadn’t seen a single one of either.
Crew Stadium, this season called “Historic Crew Stadium” and for six years called “Mapfre Stadium,” hosted its last Major League Soccer game on June 19. The Crew beat Chicago 2-0 on a pair of goals by Gyasi Zardes. It was a fitting scoreline for the final match in the beloved building.
That’s because, in Crew Stadium’s more than two decades of operation, it had served as more than just a place for the Black & Gold’s MLS exploits and the songs of Kenny Chesney. Crew Stadium was, perhaps most famously, the home of five USA vs Mexico clashes in Concacaf World Cup qualifying.
Across 16 years, the USMNT was 4-0-1 with all four victories coming by a 2-0 scoreline. “Dos a cero” became not just the margin of victory for the United States but a central part of American soccer lore. By the time the run came to an end with a 2-1 loss to Mexico at Crew Stadium in 2016, “Dos a cero” was also a rallying cry.
Leaving behind that history is not easy. Crew Stadium was less than a quarter-century old. Since there was no older top-level soccer stadium in continuous use in the country, its past mattered.
In an age where everything is more disposable than ever, even stadiums, the chance that any American soccer venue reaches the status granted to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field is small. It’s an ineffable mix of factors that elevates a soccer stadium to venerated status. Crew Stadium benefited from those USA-Mexico qualifiers and overcame its deficiencies to claim a place in the hearts of fans across the country. The deficiencies became “charm” with enough notable games and indelible moments.
Keeping the Crew in Columbus required leaving Crew Stadium behind. On Saturday, Major League Soccer’s first club will become the first to occupy two purpose-built stadiums. Unlike Crew Stadium, which was unique simply because it was built for soccer, the newly christened Lower.com Field boasts every modern amenity.
Lower.com Field won’t even be the first soccer stadium opening in MLS this year. It won’t even be the first to open in the state of Ohio. FC Cincinnati inaugurated TQL Stadium in the West End of Cincinnati a few weeks before Austin opened Austin FC opened Q2 Stadium.
Both FC Cincinnati (2018) and Austin FC (2021) are recent additions to MLS. The Crew is an original MLS club, an organization launched in a town known only for college sports back in 1996. Lamar Hunt’s decision to personally finance a stadium in Columbus came in part because of his keen desire to build the game and the clear lack of interest from civic leaders to aid in the process.
Hunt made Crew Stadium happen. Twenty-three years later, the scene has changed. Following the near-relocation of the club, the Crew’s new owners convinced the city to work out a deal for a soccer-specific stadium in the city’s arena district. With the NHL’s Blue Jackets and minor league baseball’s Clippers occupying downtown real estate, the move makes sense.
What the Crew is doing is unprecedented in MLS history. In part because of the league’s relative youth and because so many clubs are even younger, no team has been around long enough or built a soccer stadium long enough ago to justify building a second.
If this works and the Crew thrives in its new home, it could help convince other cities to bring soccer into their urban centers. Several of the franchises founded in the 90s have struggled to be relevant in markets that long ago wrote them off as “minor league” sports outfits playing in ill-fitting stadiums. Watching the Crew, a club that had an appropriate stadium, but well outside of the city center and lacking modern features, pull off a change of address that benefits both the team and the city will have ramifications outside of Columbus.
The Crew got a head start on everyone else when it came to building a second soccer-specific stadium. One original MLS franchise, New England, has yet to get its first. Another finally succeeded in building a proper home just a few years ago.
The rest have pulled off the feat, of course. The LA Galaxy opened what is now called Dignity Health Sports Park in 2003. It’s now the oldest soccer stadium in MLS. FC Dallas shifted to their building in Frisco in 2005. The Colorado Rapids moved into Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in 2007. The former MetroStars, now Red Bulls, unveiled Red Bull Arena in 2009. The Kansas City Wizards opened their stadium in 2012, becoming Sporting Kansas City in the process.
There’s a theme among those MLS originals. None of their stadiums are anywhere near the downtown region of their markets. Far-flung stadiums were the order of the day for MLS 1.0 clubs if they could get a stadium built at all. The positives of playing in a soccer venue soon became balanced against the negatives of geography.
Despite the loss of history, Columbus’s move is a positive for the club. It’s a positive for MLS and for American soccer, too. It shows that clubs can remain attached to their communities even in the face of the whims of owners and financial pressures. No one yet knows if Lower.com Field will become the spiritual home of the game in the United States like Crew Stadium. So much has changed. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Lower.com Field will be the spiritual and physical home of the Columbus Crew, something remarkable all by itself.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
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Rendering courtesy of the Columbus Crew