The last steel beam goes up at the Crew's new facility, the team signs Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kevin Molino, and Zack Steffen gets the start at Man City

It’s starting to look like a stadium. There’s mud where the grass will be growing by springtime and empty concrete where thousands of seats will be installed later this winter. No scoreboard or signage is yet in sight. But the bones of the Columbus Crew’s new stadium are completely in place following the placement of the final steel beam during a special event Thursday. 

“It’s just thrilling to see it change on a weekly basis,” said Crew co-owner Dr. Pete Edwards, one of several club leaders on hand, including co-owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, Coach Caleb Porter, President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko, and others. They joined about 400 construction workers in signing the 36-foot beam, which was painted black and affixed with U.S.A. and Crew flags, before a crane lifted it to the northwest corner of the park to complete the steel canopy structure.

Edwards said the stadium is still on schedule to open in July, midway through the MLS season. But with the vaccine rollout proceeding at snail speed, will COVID-19 allow the place to be at full capacity on opening day? “Unfortunately we aren’t in charge of the pandemic,” Edwards said. “We do hope that by the time the stadium's open that we will have enough crowd here to make it really feel fun.”

Big free agent pickups

The team that takes the field in the new facility may be even stronger than last year’s squad. In the weeks since Columbus hoisted MLS Cup, the Crew front office has been busy making significant improvements to an already impressive roster. This year’s team will need that kind of depth to compete simultaneously in MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League, where they’ll face top competition from across North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Two days before Christmas, Columbus signed veteran striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who twice won the Golden Boot as the league’s top goal-scorer during his impressive seven-year tenure with the New York Red Bulls. Wright-Phillips, 35, is coming off a one-year stint with Los Angeles FC. He’ll back up Gyasi Zardes in Columbus, giving the Crew remarkable firepower off the bench.

The team may be even more stacked on the flanks. This week Columbus also locked down winger Kevin Molino, most recently of Minnesota United FC, an MLS mainstay coming off his best season yet. Molino, 30, a member of Trinidad and Tobago’s national team, was a terror throughout the playoffs, scoring four times in three games. He’ll combine with Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr. to give Porter ample options at the position. 

Lockout looming?

Aside from COVID itself, the pandemic has spawned another ominous variable hanging over the 2021 season: a potential labor dispute in MLS. A shortened season with minimal attendance resulted in an estimated $1 billion in lost revenue for MLS, which has caused the league to invoke the force majeure clause in its collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players Association. This obligates the parties to negotiate modifications to the existing collective bargaining agreement in good faith for 30 days. 

The MLSPA slammed this decision: “After a 2020 season of extreme sacrifice, immeasurable risk to personal health, and a remarkable league-wide effort to successfully return to play, this tone-deaf action by the league discredits the previous sacrifices made by players and the enormous challenges they overcame in 2020.” 

After settling on a new CBA to run through 2024 last February, the league and players negotiated a new deal last June in light of the pandemic, with the players agreeing to a 5 percent pay cut. Now they’re negotiating for the third time in under a year. If they can’t come to an agreement within 30 days, the possibility is on the table for the union to decertify, opening them up to sue MLS as individuals under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Things could get very messy.

As of Wednesday, the league was proposing to extend the current CBA through 2027, allowing the players to receive their full salaries but also pushing back any significant salary increase into the distant future. The MLSPA has yet to respond. 

Steffen thriving in England

While MLS is in the midst of its offseason, most of the world is in the thick of its season. That includes the English Premier League, where former Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen has found his way into a starting role with powerhouse Manchester City. With Man City’s usual starter Ederson out of commission, Steffen made his first start for City in a EUFA Champions League matchup with French club Marseille, posting a shutout en route to a 3-0 victory.

Steffen has since started for City in a 4-1 EFL Cup victory against Arsenal and a 3-1 win over Chelsea in league play. And on Wednesday, he shut out Manchester United in a 2-0 EFL Cup semifinal triumph, highlighted by Steffen’s masterful save on Bruno Fernandes. City have yet to lose with him in net.

“He has settled incredibly well to the dynamic of the group,” City manager Pep Guardiola told reporters this week. “He listens in training. He made an incredible save in the first half from Bruno Fernandes, but his other actions, like with the ball, he did really well.” Steffen is scheduled to start for City again Sunday in an FA Cup game against Birmingham City, and although Ederson is not likely to lose his starting spot any time soon, there’s a good chance Steffen could go on loan to another elite Premier League side rather than languish on City’s bench.