Crew Groundbreaking II: Scenes From the Sequel

On Thursday, October 10, 2019, the Columbus Crew broke ground. Again. The team of firsts became the first MLS club to commence construction of a second soccer-specific stadium, replacing the pioneering erector set known as MAPFRE Stadium with a modern marvel that will serve as a capstone to Columbus’ thriving Arena District.

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The stage is set. (Photo by Jess Laicy)

A six-foot mound of ceremonial dirt piled in front of a stage lined with commemorative shovels. To the right of the huge video screen above the stage loomed the downtown Columbus skyline. To the left was an enormous expanse of rock-hard dirt containing goals and corner flags in their precise locations come 2021.

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Several twitter followers replied to this photo that the Crew’s future field, in its current state, is already better for soccer than Yankee Stadium. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

Former players such as Mike Lapper, Brian Maisonneuve, Tom Presthus, Dante Washington, David Winner, Kyle Martino, and Frankie Hejduk were in attendance, as were current players like Artur, Connor Maloney, Josh Williams, Hector Jimenez, Aboubacar Keita, Jon Kempin, Luis Argudo, and Jonathan Mensah, plus head coach Caleb Porter. (Homegrown captain Wil Trapp was away on U.S. Men’s National Team duty, but his wife, Beth, was there in his stead.) Other notable Columbus personalities, including Columbus Blue Jackets all-star defenseman Seth Jones and legendary zoologist Jack Hanna, were on hand for the festivities, along with the usual swath of political dignitaries and community leaders. In addition to floor seating and standing areas, a temporary Nordecke rose into the sky, with banners hanging from its railings and jam-packed fans singing “Glory to Columbus.”

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The makeshift Nordecke. (Photo by Jess Laicy)

After a prolonged fight to keep the Crew from being stolen away to Austin, Texas, the scene felt like a an exceptionally vivid dream that had come true.

Because it was and it had.

*****

Former Crew midfielder and current NBC soccer commentator Kyle Martino was the perfect host for the event. The 2002 MLS Rookie of the Year moved the proceedings along nicely with funny quips and heartfelt candor. On a day when everyone felt like they were living in a dream, Martino spoke about how the Crew had made his own dreams come true.

“Before we get to some amazing speakers, I just want to talk briefly about what Columbus Crew means to me,” he said. “I was a kid in the back yard doing my own commentary for my own goals in MLS Cup finals and World Cup finals. A jersey that was too big for me, ‘Martino scores again!’—I was really high on myself back then—but it was all for a dream, and the dream was to be a part of something and to belong to something special.

Martino was in Italy with the U.S Olympic team when he got the news he had been drafted by Columbus.

“That changed my life forever,” he said. “They made a dream of a kid in a back yard happen, and multiple dreams have happened since then and the Columbus Crew made that possible for me. I made it to the U.S. National Team to represent my country because of the Columbus Crew. I’m now a broadcaster for NBC because of the Columbus Crew. I started a foundation to convert basketball courts to multi-sport spaces to welcome more kids into this game and the Columbus Crew supports that even though it’s well after I was a Columbus Crew player.

“The Columbus Crew has always been about family, and the family was in crisis for a moment, and I have to say that a club is not just a C that they put on the end of a name to make it look good or sound good. A football club or a soccer club is a family, and this family had to bind together in a moment when there was a chance that this family wasn’t going to continue. It was the people that support us every day, the good and the bad, the rain and the snow and the sunny days like this, I can’t tell you what it meant to be on that field with a band of brothers, and some of them are here—I saw Dante, Frankie, Tom Presthus, Maisonneuve was here—these guys are forever a part of my life, but we needed you so many times and you were there for us. And this club NEEDED you and you stepped up. Saving the Crew was about the people on this stage saying ‘We hear you. We hear you that this club means something.’”

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From left to right, the Haslam family of Jimmy & Dee Haslam and Whitney & J.W. Johnson, were among the people who heard Crew fans loud and clear during our time of crisis. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

*****

Martino played his games at MAPFRE Stadium, a facility built to ensure not only the club’s survival, but hopefully the league’s.

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Crew Stadium groundbreaking ceremony on August 14, 1998. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

I don’t remember much about the August 14, 1998, groundbreaking for MAPFRE Stadium. It was a relatively modest event. I remember driving down Hiawatha and under the bridge for I-71 and then we all just parked on a grass field at the northern edge of the Ohio State Fairgrounds. A giant inflatable Crew soccer ball and some black & gold balloons adorned a patch of dirt. There were team, league, city, county, and state officials on hand. Brian McBride was there, and he’s told me he still has his shovel and his hardhat from that afternoon. There were remarks by the dignitaries on hand, but I don’t recall what was said. Even the write-up in the next day’s Columbus Dispatch was short on scenes from the event itself, instead focusing on some details of the facility and the daunting timeline for completion.

What I do remember is a feeling of relief. A feeling of permanence.

Major League Soccer was only in its third season at that point. There was no guarantee it would survive. The Crew, more specifically, found themselves in a precarious position as they were getting booted out of Ohio Stadium due to extensive renovations. They had nowhere else to go if they were to remain in Columbus. A tax vote failed that would have built a soccer stadium and hockey arena in what is now the Arena District. Another vote failed for a privately financed stadium in suburban Dublin. There were very few sands left in the hourglass.

The Crew (and the league) needed a hero. They had one in Lamar Hunt. Undaunted by the two failed stadium referendums, Hunt persevered and eventually entered into a stadium deal with the Ohio Expo Center. They broke ground on August 14, 1998, and the stadium opened on May 15, 1999, nine months and one day later. Columbus Crew Stadium was Lamar Hunt’s baby, and it was built in the time it takes to make a human one.

My feeling about Crew Stadium was that it signaled survival and permanence.

Until Grant Wahl’s tweet on October 16, 2017, anyway.

*****

Crew Stadium worked splendidly as a proof of concept. The league not only survived, but other owners traversed the trail blazed by Lamar Hunt. A stadium-building boom soon followed. The LA Galaxy opened theirs in 2003. Then FC Dallas opened theirs in 2005. It went on an on and by 2017, Orlando opened the 13th soccer-specific stadium built since MAPFRE Stadium was constructed. All the new stadiums were fancier with many more amenities. The more recent ones were in downtown settings, offering vibrancy and a sense of connection.

MAPFRE Stadium is still a wonderful place to watch a soccer game. The field is the best in MLS, the sightlines are perfect, and the place is steeped in American soccer history. A true landmark. I’d be happy to watch Crew games there for the rest of my life.

But as a sustainable business, the Crew needed more. The situation became even more dire when the California trust-funder who purchased the team in 2013 revealed plans to relocate the team in Austin, Texas. He made superficial noises about “exploring parallel paths” but he had specifically requested secret permission to relocate to Austin as part of his purchase agreement. The writing was on the wall.

The Crew needed a hero. Again.

This time, there were many.

*****

This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of #SavedTheCrew Day, and I wrote about my experience that night, speaking to some of the heroes involved, but on the occasion of the new stadium’s groundbreaking, Dr. Pete Edwards—team physician turned ownership group member—spoke to this subject, using the refrain “not without you.”

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Dr. Pete Edwards at the podium. (Photo by Jess Laicy)

“It’s about Columbus,” Dr. Pete said. “It’s about pride in our community. It’s about how thankful I am to be a part of this community and a part of this team. I want to thank my family, especially my wife Chris, for all the support over the last few years.

“I want to thank #SaveTheCrew. We gathered on the courthouse steps two years ago and you’ve worked passionately and diligently over the last two years to support the club – not without you.

“I want to thank Alex Fischer and Steve Lyons. They worked harder and smarter and longer hours than anyone else to support this project – not without you, Alex and Steve.

“I want to thank Commissioner Garber because his patience and his judgement and his love of the game allowed a conflict to turn into a celebration – not without you, Don.

“I want to thank the city, county, and state officials that have trust and commitment to community in their hearts and without them, without that, our project – not without you all.

“I want to thank the Haslam Family, who understand that shared experience and passion in sport is part of the glue that holds our community together and what we accomplished together brings us all closer. For their support, thank you for stepping up in a big way. Not without you, the Haslam Family.

“And I want to thank all of you. Because you’re here and because you care for Columbus and for your team, we are able to do something really special.”

*****

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A beautiful day. (Photo by jess Laicy)

I can’t help but think about the weather. The sun bathed the scene in a brightness befitting of the Crew’s future. It may have even been a little too warm, which is like complaining about income taxes on a lottery jackpot.

But it’s not the day’s weather that I am thinking about. The sunshine is reminiscent of the City Hall rally two Octobers prior, in the days immediately following the Austin relocation threat. That’s the weather I’m thinking about now.

Mother Nature can make or break dreams. Last year, I read a heartbreaking story about a career minor league pitcher named Brian Mazone, who finally got called up to the Philadelphia Phillies at the age of 30 to make a spot start due to an injury on the Phillies’ staff. The game got rained out. The injured pitcher came off the disabled list the next day. Mazone was sent back down to AAA and never pitched in a Major League game. It was a lifelong dream washed away by the indifferent randomness of the weather. I think about how it could have happened to us too.

The groundbreaking ceremony was the culmination of a two-year process that began with an overflow throng of 2,000 people gathering at the steps of City Hall and announcing their intentions to save the Crew. Front and center in the audience that day was Dr. Pete, who heard the message loud and clear. It was a perfectly sunny October afternoon that contributed mightily to the success of the event.

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Being splendid at more than just ice cream, Jeni Britton Bauer leads Crew fans in a “Save the Crew” chant from the sunny steps of Columbus City Hall in 2017. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

And now, for some reason, all I can think about is what if it had rained? Would it have depressed turnout? Would the event have been rescheduled? Would Dr. Pete have been able to attend? The rally was the catalyst for so many rapid-fire advancements for the #SaveTheCrew movement in those crucial early moments of the relocation saga that a deflated or rescheduled rally may have killed the momentum before it had a chance to get going. Not that Morgan Hughes and friends would have given up, but we don’t know how that alternate reality would have played out.

What we do know is that a a sunny October afternoon with 2,000 people on the steps of City Hall in 2017 set us on the path to a sunny October afternoon with 4,296 people at an Arena District construction site in 2019.

So I can’t stop thinking about the weather and how the universe has literally radiated good fortune on the Columbus Crew.

*****

Radiating good fortune on the Columbus Crew does not extend to gameday weather. Due to comically inopportune thunderstorms, the Crew surely lead the league in weather delays over the past several years. This leads to a comment about the new stadium.

When Mayor Ginther mentioned that the Haslams were pouring an extra $70 million into the stadium, the natural question was for what? It was easy to assume it was for something new and flashy like everyone in attendance will have an autonomous robot assistant to fetch their food and beverages! Dr. Pete, however, revealed that the new money was just a function of paying what it costs for what they want to build, rather than limiting what they build to meet a specific budget. As an example, he cited that the new stadium will now have a wraparound roof that covers all the seats, which wasn’t in the original plan.

“We’re not focused on a number,” Dr. Pete said. “We’re focused on making the stadium as beautiful, as functional, and as exciting as it can be. Just like the roof. At the beginning, we didn’t want to cover it, but then (the Haslams) came to a few games in the spring and it was raining on all of us, so they said we have to have a roof for our fans because that is going to make early season games more enjoyable.”

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The roof as seen from the seating bowl. (Stadium rendering courtesy of Columbus Crew SC.)

Dee Haslam referenced the roof during her on-stage remarks.

“We thought about how we cover the fans,” she said. “Not only to protect them from the elements…but also to create a very loud stadium because we know it is an advantage. So we’re going to continue working really hard to make sure that every element of the stadium is perfect for you.”

What a world of difference from worrying about functional hinges for the toilet stall doors.

*****

Another set of people that were on my mind all afternoon were the Crew employees who persevered through two years of turmoil and chaos and were still with the club. The team side of any pro sports organization is always in constant flux, but this was something extraordinary for a front office to endure. They went through the lowest of lows during the relocation struggle, wondering not only about whether the club would exist, but also their jobs and careers. Through no fault of their own, they sometimes had to bear the brunt—directly or indirectly—of the fanbase’s angst and anger. They could have rightfully and understandably sought other employment out of financial necessity or self-preservation, but they were determined to stick by the club and the city until the bitter end, all while holding out hope for a miracle that would allow them to continue with their dream jobs for the team they loved. And when the miracle happened, they spent a year working extremely long hours as the front office had to be rebuilt from the barebones operation that was left behind.

I was so happy for people like Arica Kress, Tim Miller, Carlos Mojica, Eric Sinicki, Phil Goldfarb, Colt Berry, Molly Zaluksi, Meredith Ley, Ryan Martin, Nick Otte, Ben Jackson and others who were there for the entirety of the roller coaster ride from October of 2017 to October of 2019. And that’s not to mention those who willingly joined the organization at the height of the relocation turmoil and worked like crazy under difficult circumstances. And that’s also not to mention those who have joined the club since it’s been saved, diligently working toward a better future for the Black & Gold. Incalculable hard work by a lot of people helped keep the club afloat and then propelled it forward in the lead-up to the flawless groundbreaking ceremony. This day belonged to them just as much as anyone.

One of my favorite parts of the afternoon, after the official ceremony had concluded, was seeing these unsung heroes taking their turns at the shovel. They are an essential part of the building. Both noun and verb.

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A small sampling of the unsung heroes. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

*****

After the ceremony, I had to go for a walk. I left my recorder on a seat and Massive Report’s Tyler Fisher had thankfully rescued it. He was at the pizza place directly across from Nationwide Arena, so it gave me a chance to explore the new neighborhood.

One the drive in, I thought about how this was the first of probably hundreds of times I’d be making this journey. Now, walking it, I had a fuller sense of how special the new location will be. The walk from the new stadium to Nationwide Arena is no different than the downtown walk I regularly make for Cleveland Indians games several times every summer. The walk to Crew games is going to be quite a scene—a torrent of black & gold flowing toward the eastern bank of the Olentangy River.

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Mini shovels. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

Walking back from the arena, I saw an overflow crowd of Crew fans at Betty’s Bar, which is surely counting down the days until the stadium is open for business. I happened to get there at the precise moment of some sort of commemorative shovel ceremony by the fans. The shovels were a thoughtful gift from Crew ownership.

Speaking of ownership, I kept thinking about Dee Haslam waving a giant Crew flag on the stage earlier that afternoon. I’ll probably think about that moment a lot for many years to come, simply because it was awesome.

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Dee Haslam waving a giant Crew flag on the stage. (Photo by Jess Laicy)

Walking back by the stadium site again on my way to my car, I thought about how the Crew’s objectively terrible original logo came to mean so much to me when MAPFRE Stadium was being built. It was then that the hardhats became infused with real meaning. Columbus and the Crew were literally building Major League Soccer.

Those same feelings of survival and permanence came flooding back to me, although they were even more pronounced than they were in 1998. There is now no question that MLS is going to survive, and with this ownership group and this new stadium, there is no question about the Crew’s survival either. There is now going to be a state-of-the-art stadium in the Arena District, just as was envisioned more than two decades ago. Now the Blue Jackets, Clippers, and Crew will form a year-round sporting nexus on Nationwide Boulevard that had long been dreamed about by the city’s sports fans, politicians, and business leaders.

It took vision. It took time, teamwork, and talent. It took the fight of our lives.

But Columbus did it. After all that has transpired since October of 2017 and anticipating all that the future now holds, Columbus not only won, but is also running up the score on those who picked the wrong city to mess with. Dos a Queso would be far too flattering of a scoreline.

If you are a Columbus Crew fan, you are now living the best long-term timeline.  Never stop striving to keep it that way because lopsided victories when you were the underdog  sure are fun.

*****

Let’s give the final word to Dr. Pete, who capped his podium remarks with this stirring reflection on what the groundbreaking ceremony represented.

“Today I am thankful, but I am also proud,” Dr. Pete said. “I am proud to be from Columbus because in Columbus, we fight for what we believe in and we fight for what is ours. And in Columbus, we win those fights. In Columbus, we cherish our history, but we respect our roots. But in Columbus, we are more excited for our future. And in Columbus, we dream big, and only in Columbus do we accomplish even bigger. So, Columbus, be proud of yourself. Be proud of what we’ve accomplished and be proud of your team. Thank you very much. Go Columbus and go Columbus Crew!”

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Ready to get to work. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

 

*****

New book “A MASSIVE COLLECTION, VOLUME 1” is now available for pre-order through the Nordecke. Visit HERE for book info and click HERE for the pre-order. A portion of the proceeds from the pre-order will be donated to the Gladden House.

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
If you wish to support my writing, please consider becoming a patron at my Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/SteveSirk

A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.

One thought on “Crew Groundbreaking II: Scenes From the Sequel

  1. Wow Steve! So well written. You always catch it all and then you help us all relive the memory in vivid detail. I love this. Can you guess that it brought a tear or few as I read? Thank you sir! Randy Sims

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

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