Columbus set to celebrate 11 years at Crew Stadium

Crew play host as league's first soccer-specific stadium turns 11

 

The 11th doesn’t have the same panache when it comes to anniversaries as the fifth or 10th. But for the Crewm Saturday’s game vs. Chivas USA has something else going for it:

Only one other time has the Crew been home on the date that marks the opening of Crew Stadium on May 15, 1999.

Last season’s celebration of a decade in the league’s first soccer-specific stadium occurred the weekend before May 15. Other games have been close to the anniversary except in 2004, when the Crew scheduled the original opponent in Crew Stadium, New England, for the same day five years later.

“It’s always going to have meaning for us as an organization,” Crew president and general manager Mark McCullers said of the date. Yet he joked there are no special plans for the day other than “beat Chivas.”

Chivas USA weren’t in existence when the Crew christened the stadium with a 2-0 victory before an overflow crowd of 24,741. Yet there is a link.

The Goats' shared home with the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Home Depot Center, was the second MLS venue to be opened in 2003 after Crew founder Lamar Hunt showed his commitment to the long-term viability of the league by privately funding the construction of Crew Stadium for about $28 million.

“It’s a tribute to our late owner and still is to the Hunt family,” Crew assistant coach and former player Mike Lapper said. “I hope people recognize this and this stadium. Especially with all the new stadiums being built -- everyone says they’re so nice, but there’s something to be said when you’re the first at anything. It set the stage for other people to come in.”

The Crew played in cavernous Ohio Stadium (capacity of about 100,000) their first two years, but a renovation project beginning in 1999 forced the Crew to look elsewhere. After voters rejected two tax issues to build a soccer stadium, Hunt came to an agreement with officials at the state fairgrounds in Columbus and a groundbreaking was held on Aug. 14, 1998.

That the stadium was ready in nine months despite a harsh winter was a testament to the workers and, yes, the simplicity of the structure. Crew Stadium doesn't have the amenities and “wow” factor of subsequent stadiums.

“One of the disadvantages of being first and being a visionary is that you have to go through the experience of not having others to rely on,” McCullers said. “For $30 million or so, it was a very frugal construction, so there’s a lot of things we wanted to do at the time and have done over the course of the past 11 years.”

The Crew went from the narrow confines of Ohio Stadium that some swear was less than 60 yards wide to a perfect pitch, but in the process, gave up the ability for bigger crowds. The top three turnouts all-time were in Ohio Stadium, capped by 31,550 fans on Sept. 15, 1996.

“Even though it was a football stadium, it was a great atmosphere,” original Crew and current team technical director Brian Bliss said.

The Crew played the first seven matches of the 1999 season on the road before finally coming home.

“We were watching them build the stadium,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha said. “We were coming here quite often to see the progress and finally we got to play. It was an amazing feeling. We were excited and it showed. We won 2-0.”

There have been other memorable games, including three World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and the Eastern Conference Final in 2008 when the Crew beat Chicago on the way to winning the MLS Cup.

Lapper said the significance of opening night at Crew Stadium has not diminished over 11 years.

“You have to remember your roots, and for the league, the roots are Columbus Crew Stadium,” he said.