The team has sparkled thus far on the pitch, but off-field issues have swirled

On the pitch, the results have been positive so far this season for Columbus Crew SC. First, the Crew beat defending Eastern Conference champions New York City FC 1-0 in the home opener. Then the team went on the road and tied the MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders 1-1. After facing down two of last year’s top MLS squads, Columbus is undefeated. So why does it feel like the Crew has been taking so many Ls lately?

For some fans, watching the team just got more difficult. Last week, due to an ongoing dispute with Sinclair Broadcast Group, YouTube TV dropped SportsTime Ohio outside of the Cleveland-Akron-Canton market. SportsTime is scheduled to broadcast 13 of the Crew’s 34 matches this year, a total that included last Saturday’s Seattle contest. The next two matches, at home this Saturday against Real Salt Lake and visiting the new Nashville SC on March 21, are also on the network. (Fox Sports Ohio, the sister network where 20 upcoming Crew matches will be shown, is still part of YouTube TV’s Columbus package.)

Watching the Crew might become even more complicated as coronavirus concerns continue to intensify locally. Some scrutinized the team’s trip to Seattle last weekend due to the city’s status as one of the main United States hotbeds for the virus known as COVID-19. The Crew made the trip anyway — the Sounders touted “enhanced cleaning treatments to disinfect all areas of the stadium before and after every event” at CenturyLink Field, and Crew SC took a charter flight home from Seattle after the match to minimize potential exposure to the disease.

Yet COVID-19 showed up in Ohio anyway, just not through the Crew organization. Monday, Gov. Mike DeWine announced three confirmed cases of coronavirus in Cuyahoga County and declared a state of emergency in Ohio. Hours later, Ohio State University suspended all face-to-face instruction until March 30 as a preventive measure. Countless festivals, conventions and other large gatherings around the country have been pulling the plug lately in an effort to prevent coronavirus from spreading.

This Saturday’s showdown with Salt Lake is still on, but MLS — along with the NBA, NHL, and MLB — has cut off media access to team locker rooms and clubhouses until further notice. If that seems like a minor procedural change, the NBA is also reportedly considering playing games in front of empty arenas in an effort to contain COVID-19. According to a joint statement from the leagues, “We will continue to closely monitor this situation and take any further steps necessary to maintain a safe and welcoming environment.”

In Italy, where more than 9,000 coronavirus cases are confirmed and more than 450 people have died from the disease, the government suspended all pro sports, including Serie A soccer matches, until April 3. The U.S. stats are far smaller at this point — just over 750 confirmed cases and 26 deaths — but don’t be surprised to see sporting events postponed or cancelled outright if the COVID-19 situation intensifies here, or even as a means of preventing such a spread from occurring.

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It doesn’t compare to the public health concerns currently facing every human alive, but the Black & Gold also suffered a PR black eye Monday, if only by association. A new Dispatch report indicated that a year ago, Nationwide leveraged its role in the Crew’s new Downtown stadium deal to recoup tens of millions of dollars on a non-performing $44.2 million loan. The insurance giant had extended the loan to the Greater Columbus Convention Center in 2012 to support the public purchase of Nationwide Arena — a deal that was specifically structured to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill.

The Crew organization was not involved in the re-brokered Nationwide Arena deal, but it was simultaneously attempting to wrap up a deal to acquire 21 acres of Nationwide’s land for its already announced stadium. Records suggest Nationwide used an MLS-imposed March 1, 2019 deadline for that deal to strong arm the city into approving the restructured arena loan. “We are trying to respect the Crew’s deadline of March 1,” Brian Ellis of Nationwide Realty Investors wrote to Don Brown, executive director of the convention authority, while requesting a meeting with Columbus and Franklin County officials.

With some Columbus residents already criticizing the millions in public money being funneled into the new stadium district, and with Nationwide recently signing on as the Crew’s jersey sponsor — an arrangement Crew Executive Vice President Steve Lyons said is unrelated to the real estate deal — Monday’s Dispatch report was fresh ammo for those looking to trash civic investment in pro soccer at the expense of more pressing needs. Regardless of whether Crew fans agreed with the critiques proliferating on social media, the reignited stadium controversy surely didn’t quell any bad vibes lingering from major crises and minor annoyances alike. The best salve supporters can hope for in the meantime is another win this weekend.

UPDATE: The Crew released a statement that Saturday's game will be played as scheduled despite growing coronavirus concerns. The team will take extra precautions, including providing access to hand sanitizer in restrooms and at first-aid and guest service locations, and stationing extra attendents in bathrooms to clean surfaces regularly.