Spend enough time poring over the renderings of Columbus Crew SC’s slick new stadium project, set to debut next summer, and their current digs at MAPFRE Stadium start to feel a bit basic.
As historic and iconic as the Crew’s beloved home is for both the club and American soccer as a whole, it’s always been a no-frills kind of place, dubbed “The Erector Set” in its early years. The new house downtown is anything but, with a striking roof, intimate sightlines and an array of cutting-edge amenities, not to mention a well-heeled ownership group eager to fill it with fans and quality players alike once the COVID-19 pandemic has ebbed.
“We see the renderings and we see the posts on social media and things like that. So we’re all excited about it,” influential midfielder Darlington Nagbe said in a media conference call this week. “It’s always good buzz around a team when new facilities and stadiums are being built. So hopefully the fans that have been with the club stay with the club, and then we’ll get some new fans as well to support us, whenever they’re allowed in the stadium.”
As bright as that future is, Crew SC are in no hurry to look past the opportunity right in front of them as they kick off their Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs campaign this weekend with a visit from the New York Red Bulls.
“The evolution of the club, and the new energy, the new ownership, new stadium coming next year, new training ground, new roster, it’s exciting to see it all come together. And I think we’ve made massive steps forward this year,” head coach Caleb Porter said.
“We’re going to keep building and keep improving. But while we’re doing that, we want to compete and win trophies, and we’re not looking past this year.”
MAPFRE has hosted two MLS Cup finals before and Columbus believe they have the horses to – with a little luck on their side and elsewhere in the bracket – cap their final postseason run there with a third.
“If we don’t get there, it’s not the end of the world. We will eventually get there. But my belief is it will be this year. And I know the players believe that and that they have a mind towards that,” said Porter.
“Every day that I’ve had in these two years here has been geared towards these type of games. And I try to build a mindset in the group that every day matters, every detail adds up and it’s all towards winning something. And I think the group has been thinking about these type of moments for a while. And so we’ll see if we’re ready for it.”
All in all, it’s not a bad spot to be for a club and fanbase who were staring at oblivion not three years ago, when previous owner Anthony Precourt made eyes for Austin, Texas, and the “Save the Crew” grassroots movement arose in response, eventually paving the way for the Haslam and Edwards families to step in.
Since then they’ve signed off on the biggest transfer in club history, the $7 million-plus move for playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, green-lit the seven-figure deal to acquire Nagbe from Atlanta United and ramped up the club’s academy structure in addition to the stadium.
“I would say the ante has already been raised multiple times with the ambition of our ownership,” said Crew President Tim Bezbatchenko on Thursday. “Our ownership came in and said, not only are we going to help save this team, but we want to be contending. We don’t want to be the team that every three or four years, we might make a run, or punching above our weight based on our level of spend or our ambition. A $310 million stadium project downtown is an example of that.”
It’s Porter’s job to hunt results on a day-to-day basis. Bezbatchenko is charged with building the team for the job, and steering a course in the longer term. Having played an instrumental role in Toronto FC’s rise from punchline to MLS aristocrats, “Bez” recognizes some bigger questions ahead.
“We’re going to show ambition and we’re going to do it through various ways of acquiring players. I don’t think we’ll be in the top third of the league of spending ever,” he acknowledged. “I don’t think that model, anyone’s really won MLS Cup since 2013 with Kansas City, that a team that wasn’t in the top 10 of spending that won [MLS] Cup. So we’re going to have to do it a different way and time will tell whether or not in this new era of MLS that can be done.”
Columbus hope to find a third way of sorts, between the spenders of Toronto, the Seattle Sounders, and Atlanta and the value-oriented collectives like the Philadelphia Union and RBNY. This postseason could prove instructive in that regard.
“It’s different than winning Supporters’ Shield, where you have the Philadelphias, the New York Red Bulls who have shown they could do it over the course of the season,” said Bezbatchenko. “But it’s a little bit different in MLS Cup, where the players need to step up and make the plays to win games. We’re excited that we have players like that on our team – Zelarayan and Nagbe and Pedro [Santos] and Gyasi [Zardes] – but we need to continue to add to that.”