What was the most Columbus Crew-zy moment of Saturday’s vibrant opening-day party at and around Lower.com Field?
Was it the fitting Gyasi Zardes strike – his 91st regular-season tally in black and yellow – to christen the home team's scoring at the new house? (The striker’s sly and not-insignificant role in making sure their oddball second goal crossed the line ahead of the New England Revolution’s Matt Turner and Andrew Farrell was pretty characteristic for the opportunistic Zardes, too.)
Or perhaps it was the packed crowd’s moving renditions of their traditional “Wise Men Say” serenade to their players? The odds-on choice, I’m sure, and a good one.
A few quirky old-timers might lean towards Crew legend and brand ambassador Frankie Hejduk beaming in a hardhat, clearly enjoying the new jackhammering goal ritual, a campy (but for those of us who know the history, quite endearing!) nod to the club’s first crest and its beloved “men at work” trio.
Some of us with a taste for ephemera savored the sight of the indefatigable “Crew Cat” mascot nodding along with the chants in the teeming midst of the pregame march to the match, which may well become a regular occurrence around the Arena District.
This might all sound obscure or even corny if you’re not a Crew fan, or don’t know much about the backstory to this euphoric occasion, where just about everything except having to settle for a 2-2 draw went swimmingly for the home team. But if you’ve been paying attention to what Columbus and their supporters have been through, the relocation threat they fought off, the dues they’ve paid, the history they’ve made, then you just had to smile at this exuberant afternoon of peak Crew-ness.
On Saturday the charter club of MLS became the first in the league to move from its first soccer-specific stadium to its second. And goodness, what a slick, loud, imposing and beautiful venue Lower.com Field has turned out to be.
“Absolutely electric,” said Columbus coach Caleb Porter postgame. “It's really exciting to know that this is going to be our home every single game that we play. To know that atmosphere is going to be exactly like we all envisioned it would be, dreamed it would be.
“It exceeded all expectations. We knew it would be a big day, we knew it would be loud, but it was absolutely critical, the fans, and that helped us come back from two goals [down].”
The Eastern Conference-leading New England Revolution were in no mood to play opening-day patsies, soaking up their hosts’ early energy and snatching a 2-0 lead via the effervescent Tajon Buchanan, who gleefully embraced the heel role with his seizure of the moment as well as his brash shushing of the crowd.
“We gave up two goals in two moments,” said Porter ruefully, maintaining that he was quite pleased with his team’s assertive control of the game outside of those breakdowns.
But the Crew and their faithful had worked too hard for this moment, had waited too long. Their team persisted with their meticulous buildup play, and though their equalizer hinged on a truly bizarre boink off the head of an otherwise solid Farrell, maybe that own goal got a nudge from a ghost or two on its way into the net.
“It was a great way to open up the stadium,” said Zardes. “I’m so glad we were able to secure that goal.”
Afterward, Porter compared the influence of the larger- and louder-than-ever Nordecke supporters section to the 12th-man effect at his former club in Portland, where the Timbers Army’s hallowed abode in the north end of Providence Park has a palpable effect on matches – “like a vacuum sucking the ball into the net,” he said. And the visitors seemed to agree.
“That's as challenging a game on the road as you'll ever see in this league,” said Revs boss Bruce Arena, “in that stadium with clearly a 12th man for 90 minutes, something you don't see to that extent – and against a good team. To walk off with a point is a plus.”
New England center back Henry Kessler concurred: “There was a lot of energy from their fans and their players as well. It was definitely contagious for them. It was difficult.”
On paper, a draw is not quite what Columbus really need right now. The Yellow Football Team continue to be dogged by injuries – and sure enough, key fullback Milton Valenzuela limped off in the first half, grimacing like a player expecting to spend some time with the physios – and are scraping along a hair above the playoff line in the East. Not where the defending champs want or expect to be in midsummer.
But in reality? This was a day that transcended one result: a celebration of pro soccer’s story, survival and centrality in the Ohio capital. This was a glimpse of a new Crew, with a fearsome spaceship of a new stadium and a fanbase eager to revel in it. Now their team can settle in there and hunt the results they need to vault up the table, and maybe, eventually, host a memorable postseason spectacle or three in the LDC.
“To know that we have that type of crowd environment in the stadium,” said Porter, “really will give our guys a lift.”