The House Columbus Built

Shortly after arriving at Lower.com Field for the first time since the groundbreaking ceremony on October 10, 2019, I checked out the new Circle of Honor display at the northwest corner of the stadium’s exterior. That’s where I ran into one its inductees. Crew legend Frankie Hejduk, captain of the 2008 MLS Cup champions, radiated more excitement than usual. That may seem impossible, but not even four years ago, so did the very event he was excited about. Once on the all-but-certain verge of being stolen away to Austin, Texas, the Columbus Crew were now opening a world-class downtown soccer cathedral, adding even more vibrancy to the hugely successful Arena District.

Until the week prior to is opening, Hejduk had not been back to the stadium site since the groundbreaking. He didn’t want iterative doses of anticipatory excitement. Instead, he wanted to receive the new stadium in a single blast of euphoria. Now that the first match day had arrived, he was all smiles as he walked the stadium’s exterior and engaged with happy fans, feeding off their elation and amplifying it back to them.

In the past, Hejduk has told me of falling in love with Columbus and seeing the passion for Ohio State football and knowing that, deep down, this was a city that could become a true soccer town like those he had seen while playing in Germany and Switzerland. Columbus has shown flashes of such potential in the past, but Lower.com Field is expected to be the catalyst to unleash the city’s full-fledged fanaticism. As he surveyed the swarms of fans decked out in black and gold, eager to step inside the $314 million downtown stadium, Hejduk beamed.

“This is all I ever wanted,” he said.

The Dude spoke for himself, but he also spoke for so many.

******

One disorienting aspect of making the trip from Cleveland on Saturday was driving past Historic Crew Stadium. Muscle memory had me changing lanes to prepare to get off at Hudson Street as I had done hundreds of times before on match day. I had to actively remind myself to keep heading south toward downtown.

Seeing Historic Crew Stadium so still and silent triggered a flood of memories and emotions. I thought of all my gameday routines over the years. Heading down to the field and the tunnel to informally shoot the breeze with players and staff and broadcasters before the game, soaking up the view of the quiet stadium before gates opened. Wandering the concourse to say hello to people I encountered. Press box BS sessions. Watching the games from the open-air broadcast booth so I could feel the game, as well as pass along notes to my Slovenian brother Neil Sika if necessary. Paying a visit to the Founder’s Park memorials to Lamar Hunt, Kirk Urso, and Tom Fitzgerald on my way out at the end of the evening. And so many more. The empty parking lots, once so full of tailgating revelry, reminded me that so many others were also experiencing their first match day without longstanding traditions.

As I continued south on 71 to take 670 into downtown, I was literally leaving 22 years of gameday experiences in the rearview mirror, heading into the great unknown.

******

I arrived well before media check-in, so I took an external tour, which is when I ran into Hejduk. It was surreal to see a full-fledged stadium where I last saw a bulldozed patch of dirt with two goals on it almost two years ago. Passing the ticket window at the southwest corner, I saw a man futilely inquire if any tickets were still available for the match. There were none to be had except for the secondary market. I walked around to the main plaza and visited the new team store, which is infinitely more spacious than the old one, which on game days had to utilize a winding queue line as if you were waiting for a roller coaster at Cedar Point. Once in the new store, I succumbed to the urge to buy a couple hats with the soon-to-be jettisoned roundel logo on it. Gotta get the good stuff before it’s all gone.

As I wandered up and down Nationwide Boulevard, I ran into a few #SaveTheCrew luminaries, such as Keith Naas, who said he had pre-gamed at John Zidar’s nearby home and then utilized the newly constructed pedestrian bridge to cross the Olentangy River and walk to the stadium.

“I’m not going to miss standing on hundred-degree concrete for hours and hours,” Naas said after getting his first taste of a (thermally) cooler new pre-game ritual.

A few minutes later, I encountered #SaveTheCrew motormouth Morgan Hughes, who had also just left Zidar’s. He was on his way to do some further pre-gaming at Buggyworks. We took a moment to look up and marvel at the new home of the Columbus Crew.

“This stadium is so amazing that I am offended by it,” Hughes told me. “You know how if they rescue somebody, they have to give them little bits of water at a time because you have to rehydrate them slowly or they will die from the shock? Like, they will be poisoned by their body getting too much of a good thing? That’s how I feel about this stadium. The Haslam and Edwards families are actively trying to kill me and I am offended by that.”  

******

After checking in, I took a quick lap around the stadium. It’s beautiful. The seats are comfy, the leg room is ample, and the views are perfect. The Nordecke is so steep I expected the ushers to be shooing away mountain goats.

When gates opened at 3:30, I positioned myself at the northwest gate. The very first fan through the turnstiles for the very first game at Lower.com Field was Alex Stanek. He kissed the roundel badge on his black Crew jersey upon officially entering the stadium.

“It feels amazing,’ he said. “This is the conclusion of #SaveTheCrew for me.”

When asked about his status of being the first fan to enter the second soccer stadium of the first MLS club, he said, “I woke up, I had nothing to do, so I came down here to see everything I wanted to see and then I just got in line. I was here before everyone else because I wanted to be here. I’m happy we’re still kickin’ and I’m happy to be here. This place is beautiful.”

A few minutes later, while chatting on the concourse with Columbus Dispatch columnist Michael Arace, I spied an elderly gentleman wearing a Crew Stadium inaugural game t-shirt from May 15, 1999. I rushed off to compliment him on his historically significant choice of attire.

“I was at that game and I’m even happier to be at this one,” he told me while his eyes feasted on their initial glimpses of the green field and the intimate gray seating bowl. “What the Haslams have given to us with this stadium is truly special and I’m so thankful.”

Then he wandered off to gawk some more, just as he surely did on a similar Saturday evening four miles and 22 years ago.

******

A new stadium breeds new traditions. The march to the match brought an impressive display of force to the proceedings. Led by co-owner Dr. Pete Edwards and legendary Crew alums such as Hejduk, Dante Washington, Duncan Oughton, and 2021 English Premier League title winner Zack Steffen, a black & gold throng engulfed Nationwide Blvd before overrunning the plaza and squeezing its way through the turnstiles to fill up the stands.

In one of the more moving elements of the new matchday experience, at the suggestion of the players, the team took the field for pre-game introductions to the full stadium singing “Wise Men Say,” an adapted version of the Elvis Presley hit, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” To hear a sold-out stadium singing of falling in love with Crew as the team stepped onto the field was a pinch-me moment that truly felt like a dream.

Former Crew player Brian Dunseth, a 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion who played for New England in the first game at Historic Crew Stadium and was serving as the ESPN color analyst for the first game at Lower.com Field, was as blown away by the setting and the scene as I was.

“Incredible,” he said. “No matter what I try to say, I just keep coming back to the world incredible.”

******

The awe and the wonder and the pageantry and the newness of everything eventually gave way to an actual soccer game. The first-place Revolution were in town in what would have been a high-stakes game in any stadium. But this was the inaugural game at the Crew’s new home and they wanted to impress. Impress they did. Not even a minute into the match, Luis Diaz shot just wide for Columbus. The Crew relentlessly attacked the New England net and so thoroughly dominated the proceedings that the first goal seemed inevitable.

And it was. Tajon Buchanon, New England’s 22-year-old winger, gave the Revs a 1-0 lead against the run of play in the 13th minute. But nobody will remember that.

After more Columbus dominance, New England made it 2-0 in the 30th minute on a goal by Gustavo Bou. But nobody will remember that.

The Crew finally broke through in the 39th minute when Gyasi Zardes dusted off a Crew classic, the Stern Turn, wheeling on the New England defense and shooting low into the side netting like Stern John did for the Black & Gold more than two decades ago. It was the first Crew goal in the new stadium, but people probably won’t much remember that either.

What people are going to remember is the equalizer, which was so thrillingly absurd and important that anyone who was there will never forget it. The Crew’s Liam Fraser pinged a long ball that unwittingly doinked off the head of New England defender Andrew Farrell, who wasn’t even looking at the ball has he sprinted back to cover the play. It doinked in such a way that the ball perfectly caromed past onrushing Revs goalkeeper Matt Turner and toward the empty New England goal. Then it was a race to get to the ball. Farrell and Turner tried to get to the ball before it got to the goal line, while Zardes took off with the hope of nudging it over. The three arrived at the ball virtually simultaneously, but physics sided with the home team. Momentum carried all three players and the ball into a messy tangle at the back of the net.

“I turned the corner, and Andrew Farrell turned the corner as well,” Zardes said afterward. “I was like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna hold up.’ So I was trying to sprint with the rest of them. They got a jump on it and I was still right behind them. They knew I was coming. And sure it enough, it went in and the ref didn’t call it back. They were all like, ‘You pushed us into the goal’ and I was like, ‘You guys were running too fast toward your own goal for me to push you into the goal.’ I’m so glad we were able to secure that goal.”

Crew winger Luis Diaz noted, “I have seen very few goals like that in my career, but in soccer, nothing is written.”

Well, in the history books, regardless of its preposterousness, it will be written as a game-tying goal in minute 69.

Nice.

******

I truly felt that were was going to be a winner. It would have been so poetic to celebrate the final major milestone on the #SaveTheCrew timeline by seeing Columbus rally against long odds, only to get keep themselves in the game, then gain the benefit of a “we blundered” moment, and then to cap the whole thing off with an improbable last minute victory. It would have been so on the nose that it would have been too good to be true.

And it was too good to be true.

But in the 94th minute, it seemed like it was really going to happen. Alex Matan had a shot cleared off the line by Farrell, who actually saw the ball that time. Then Harrison Afful’s rebound shot was also blocked in the box. Then Darlington Nagbe’s rebound shot, destined for the upper corner of the net, got pushed aside by a sprawling Turner.

It was a game that kept the fans at full volume from the opening whistle until the referee’s final triple-tweets. In a rarity for such heralded events, the match more than lived up to the occasion.

******

“First of all,” said Crew head coach Caleb Porter as he sat down for his postgame press conference, “I’m talking about the environment and our crowd. Absolutely electric. It’s really exciting to know that this is going to be our home for every single game that we play—to know that the atmosphere is going to be exactly like we all envisioned it would be and dreamt it would be. It exceeded all expectations. We knew it would be loud, but it was absolutely incredible, and it helped us come back from two goals down.”

Porter did not stop with the superlatives for the building and its congregants.

 “I’ve been in most of the top stadiums in the world,” he said. “Most of them. And this is up there with the best in the world. And it’s maybe one of the loudest. The loudest 20,000, certainly, I’ve ever heard. We’re going to win a lot of games in this stadium. There’s so much to be excited about. I’m just a little pissed off that we weren’t able to send our fans to the brew pub or the restaurant tonight with three points. So I can’t wait to get back here.”

More than 20,000 people can’t wait either.

******

The mid-season metamorphosis for this club has to be disorienting for those involved. The training facility in Obetz and then Historic Crew Stadium were league-wide firsts and were the pinnacle of American soccer in the late 1990s. What a step forward those facilities were for the Crew players back then, to go from training at high school fields and playing in a cavernous college football stadium with a narrow field to having a dedicated training facility and the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS. It made them feel like legitimate professional soccer players.

Two decades is a long time, especially when it comes to the growth of soccer in America. The current Crew team made a similar leap forward with the completion of the Ohio Health Performance Center as their training ground and Lower.com Field as their gameday home. Once again, Columbus is at the top of the league in facilities. At the groundbreaking, I remember someone telling me that with the Haslams, it wasn’t about getting as much stadium as they could for a pre-set dollar amount. There was no making prioritized lists of what could be added or what needed to be dropped in order to fit a particular budget. Rather, they would ask how much it would cost to add something they wanted and then they would just add it. It was about paying for the stadium they wanted, and with the announced stadium cost of $230 million ballooning to $314 million, and the with the training facility clocking in at another $30 million, it shows. The new training center and stadium are NFL-level facilities, smaller only in size, not ambition.

Gyasi Zardes expressed the same wonderment that a Mike Clark or a Mark Dougherty would have felt in the late 1990s in Columbus.

“I was actually talking to a couple of my teammates about it,” Zardes said. “We actually feel like professional soccer players, playing in this environment and this organization within the last month with the new training facility and the state-of-the-art new stadium. And our fans, the way they showed up today, they carried us back from that being down two-nil. You could hear them throughout the whole game, screaming and chanting and even intimidating the other team. And that plays a role. Although we’re playing the game, the mental aspect of it is huge. And for this organization, it’s only going to keep moving in the right direction and everybody can see it, especially in the heart of the city and being able to play here. There’s no place like it, so I’m happy.”

There’s no place like home. And for the Crew, regardless of what calculated liars and would-be thieves once tried to make the world believe, that home should and will always rightfully be in Columbus.

******

Historic Crew Stadium was sometimes colloquially referred to as “Hunt Park” or “The House Lamar Built.” And that’s true. The man who coined the term “soccer-specific stadium” saw such a venue as a key for the sport’s growth in America and he felt Columbus was the perfect market to test his hypothesis. Backed into a corner facility-wise, he took a gamble and his success in Columbus ushered in the MLS stadium boom that has helped the league grow and prosper.

Lower.com Field is a different. I mean, yes, without $314 million of Haslam and Edwards check-writing, the place doesn’t exist. And that’s important. But giving the place the Lamar treatment and referring to it as Dee Arena or the Doctor’s Office would undersell what this magnificent structure really represents.

It’s the house that YOU built. Everyone who did anything at all to keep the Crew where they belong, you built this. If you rallied at City Hall, or signed petitions, or simply put a sign in your yard, you built this. If you were among the inch wide and a mile deep, you built this. If you knew the fight for the team wasn’t over and told everyone you knew, you built this. If you reported the truth of the matter in the newspaper, on television, on blogs, or on social media, you built this. If you are a politician, business leader, or lawyer who took the fight to higher and mightier battlefields, you built this. Whether you are a local business that bought a sponsorship or a suite, or a passionate individual who bought season tickets in the lower deck, upper deck, or Nordecke, you built this. If you wore a hardhat and built this in a construction sense, you literally built this. No matter your role, big or small, out front or behind the scenes, the Haslam and Edwards families aren’t investing a single dime in the construction of this magnificent new stadium if you hadn’t already done so much building of your own.

On June 19, 2021, we said goodbye to a sentimental monument to a great man.

On July 3, 2021, we said hello to an illustrious monument to a great community.

******

My latest book “A Massive Collection, Volume 1” is now available!

Paperback at Amazon.
Hardcover and paperback at Barnes & Noble.

Also, for those who like to support local businesses, signed paperback copies are available at Prologue Bookshop in the Short North.

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
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