1999 Club by Club
As it waited for the May 1999 opening of Crew Stadium, the team and front office spent January, February, March and April preparing to make history and change the perception of soccer in the United States. For Fitzgerald and company that entailed playing the first seven games of the season on the road before even playing a minute in the team's new home. Remarkably, the team emerged from the extended road trip with a 5-2 record and sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference.
Meanwhile, back in central Ohio, Crew fans snatched up an MLS-record 9,282 season tickets, breaking the team's old league record of 9,078 set in 1996.
The final 1,000 single-game tickets for Crew Stadium's Inaugural Game sold out in eight minutes, meaning that one of America's most important soccer spectacles sold out more than a month in advance.
Clearly, Crew Stadium's opening was the soccer story of the year in 1999. Some 39 publications ran more than 80 stories on the stadium and its Inaugural Game. Those articles reached an audience of more than 40 million readers, creating an estimated value of more than $700,000 in advertising. About the only thing which could have ruined the May 15 home opener would have been a Crew loss. Forward Jeff Cunningham put those fears to rest in the game's 10th minute however, when he rocketed an eight-yard blast past New England goalkeeper Walter Zenga for the stadium's first goal. The overflow crowd of 24,741 rose lo their feet and Columbus rode the momentum to o 2-0 win.
Although the Crew wouldn't go undefeated in their new home, it did help spark the team too club best 19-13 record. Crew fans also took a liking to the new venue, and with an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 19,000 for the regular-season home finale, Columbus MLS's smallest market surged past L.A. to capture the 1999 MLS attendance championship with an average home attendance of 17,696. On the field, there were many stories to follow in 1999, not the least of which was the play of goalkeeper Mark Dougherty and the Crew defense, which posted the lowest GAA in the Eastern Conference. Dougherty recorded his milestone
50th career victory, 4-2, Aug. 18 against the MetroStars at Giants Stadium. For his outstanding play and consistency, he also was recognized as the Crew's most Valuable Player and BIC Defender of the Year at the end of the season. Also in 1999, defender Mike Clark became the first Crew player lo appear in 100 games for the Black & Gold, while Brian McBride notched his 100th career point by heading home corner kicks in the 76th and 81st minutes of a 2-1 win over the Miami Fusion on Sept. 26. Unfortunately for the Crew's opponents, Stern John, the team's Trinidadian super striker was also back in the mix for
Columbus in 1999. MLS's 1998 Budweiser Scoring Champion managed to shake off a slight slump in the early going to post an 18-goal season, which featured two half tricks among four multi-goal games and a game-tying goal in the final seconds of a shootout win against San Jose. John would later end his two year stint with The Crew having amassed on astonishing 52 goals in 65 MLS appearances.
The Crew's hot start, with a 10-2 combined record against the West, enabled the team to occupy sole possession of second place from May 29 through Sept. 18, when Columbus clinched second place with a 1-0 shootout win at New England. A familiar foe awaited the Crew in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as Columbus was matched against an improved Tampa Bay side that seemed primed to pull off a first-round upset. The Crew had other intentions though, as a two-goal game by John and a three-point game by Brian West made quick work of the upstart Mutiny. Another rematch with D.C. United in the Eastern Conference Finals was set, meaning that the Crew would need at least one win at RFK Stadium, where it was winless in its previous 11 visits. A lone goal by Cunningham in Game 1 was not enough to overcome a steady performance by United, which coasted to a 2-1 win. Back in Columbus, United quickly gained the upper hand in Game 2 stunning the Crew Stadium crowd with a seventh-minute goal that gave DC a 1-0 lead.
The Crew's fortunes took a positive turn in the 20th minute, when Ansil Elcock knotted the score a. 1-1, and a brilliant goal by Cunningham just prior lo half-time seemed to put United on its heels. In what would be his final home game at Crew Stadium, John gave the Crew faithful perhaps the most fitting farewell possible, blitzing United for a second-half hat trick which eased Columbus to a 5-1 win. Despite his impending departure to Nottingham Forest of the English First Division (announced on Nov 15), his feat that day merely reinforced the fact that John would remain a Crew legend for years to come.
But Game 3 would not feature such a storybook ending, as United and a RFK throng of more than 21,000 fans were too much for the Crew to overcome. United would take the deciding game 4-0, en route to its third MLS Cup Championship.