A few hours ago I engaged a couple friends in a healthy debate about Crew Stadium’s place in history and whether or not it would be a suitable home for the US Men’s National Team.
Now, I am an ardent Crew supporter but I need to be honest (aka objective) with all of you for a moment. Crew Stadium was the first soccer specific stadium for an MLS franchise. Many people will try to tell you that Crew Stadium is an important part of American soccer folklore/history. They will tell you that without Crew Stadium, there would be no Home Depot Center/PPL Park/BBVA Compass Stadium.
This is simply not true.
Am I supposed to believe that without Crew Stadium, the New York Red Bulls NEVER would’ve wound up with their own facility. Does Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois REALLY exist because of what happened in Columbus? No. Crew Stadium itself is quite simple. It’s four sides of mostly cheap, metal bleachers on a former county fairground parking lot. Only recently did the organization pull enough teeth to remove the central stands at the north end of the stadium and insert a concert stage to help bring in more events to generate more revenue. Outside of that, the stadium has remained largely untouched since it originally opened in 1999. The front office continues to search for a sponsor to sign a long term naming rights deal, but they haven’t really come close in the stadium’s 13 year existence. Meanwhile, pretty much every soccer specific stadium that has come along since then has a lucrative (some more than others) naming rights deal that was completed fairly close to each one’s debut. Some even had naming rights done BEFORE the inaugural game.
So yes, Crew Stadium was the first of its kind and represents a significant footnote in American soccer history. But it’s nothing more than that: a footnote. The facility continues to wither away under the harsh sands of time.
Enter the US Men’s National Team.
The USMNT has never lost a World Cup qualifier inside the confines of Crew Stadium. In fact, the qualifying campaigns for Italy 2006 and South Africa 2010 both featured significant victories by the US over hated CONCACAF rivals Mexico inside Columbus Ohio’s favorite soccer stadium. I was in attendance for the original “Dos a Cero” match when the US clinched its spot in the 2006 World Cup with a resounding 2-0 victory over Mexico in September of 2005.
It was by far the most festive atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. And this was in 2005! The American Outlaws were still in their infant stages. US soccer supporters hadn’t even remotely begun to mobilize at that point in time. The US also won its home qualifying fixture over Mexico in Columbus in 2009 leading up to the 2010 World Cup. Columbus has become a fortress for the Stars And Stripes, especially when it matters most during qualifying. Not only that, but Columbus is ideally located in the heart of America’s Midwest; the home of the middle class. Tuesday night’s sellout crowd will feature fans from Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, as well as the rest of the state of Ohio. You could not ask for a more central focal point from to draw fans from surrounding cities/states. It is truly a melting pot when the USMNT comes to the capital of Ohio.
Are there bigger cities than Columbus who feel they deserve a shot? Absolutely. But I seem to recall a match at Chicago’s Soldier Field several years ago in which the US played Honduras and the crowd was overwhelmingly Blue And White. The immigrants put the natives to shame. The same thing happened the last time the US hosted Argentina at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The 2011 Gold Cup Final showed us the true colors of Southern California. Places like Portland, Seattle, Kansas City, and Washington DC will also cry out for their voice to be heard. But with the exception of DC, all of those places have solid stadiums already in place. They are no longer in need of a modern home.
If the US Soccer Federation declared Crew Stadium the official home of the USMNT for World Cup qualifying it would create a true sense of urgency to upgrade the archaic facility. The grounds crew regularly receives national awards for its pristine upkeep of the natural grass playing surface itself, but beyond that the stadium is in desperate need of renovations. It must become a modern stadium like so many of its MLS counterparts. A little nudge from the USSF would make all the difference in the world. It would allow things to come full circle and let Crew Stadium leave behind the days of being old and outdated while sleek new stadiums spring up around the country. A wide open parking lot around the stadium leaves plenty of room for tailgating and pregame festivities, but it will take more than that to make Columbus the official home of America’s Team.
When you’re watching the match against Jamaica on Tuesday night, pay close attention to the crowd. See just how skilled Columbus is at hosting American soccer supporters. Listen to the sounds of AO Columbus and the rest of the Midwestern chapters of America’s best supporters group who traveled to this “cathedral of American soccer”. Then close your eyes and imagine if the stadium had actual chairs and legitimate VIP suites courtesy of a lucrative naming rights deal. Imagine the country’s first soccer specific stadium as the official home of the US Men’s National Team.
Now that would be truly MASSIVE…