Crew resuming regular season Thursday at Mapfre, minus fans in the stands

Chris DeVille
Crew forward Gyasi Zardes scores against FC Cincinnati during the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando in July.

This Thursday, Aug. 20, for the first time since their season opener back in March, Columbus Crew SC will play a home game at Mapfre Stadium. It won’t be a complete return to normalcy, though: Due to COVID-19 containment measures, the Crew will face off against the Chicago Fire with no fans in the stands. 

Despite the odd circumstances, Crew players Gyasi Zardes and Artur spoke excitedly this week about a return to something like business as usual after five months of anything but. “It’s starting to feel like a normal season game like it did before COVID-19 hit,” striker Zardes said in an online press conference Tuesday.

MLS suspended its season due to coronavirus on March 12 after just two Columbus matches, a win against New York City FC and a draw at Seattle. The league returned last month with MLS Is Back, a World Cup-style tournament within a (mostly) COVID-free “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Columbus dominated the tournament’s group stage, recording three shutout wins, all of which counted toward the team’s regular season stats. In their first elimination match, a previously electric Crew looked lethargic in a penalty kick shootout loss to Minnesota United; fortunately for the Black and Gold, nothing after the group stage counted toward the official league standings. Thus, Columbus is undefeated and in first place as the regular season resumes.

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Along with the rest of MLS, the Crew is embarking on Phase One of the revamped schedule, which has them playing six matches in just 21 days. The league hopes to add Phases Two and Three if all goes well, with each team ultimately cramming in 18 matches between now and Nov. 8, followed by playoffs culminating in MLS Cup on Dec. 12. For Columbus, it all begins with Thursday’s contest against Chicago, which will be televised on Fox Sports Ohio at 7:30 p.m.

The Crew front office has been busy in three weeks since the team’s tournament run ended, adding three new players via a trio of trades that collectively cost them two draft picks and reserve defender Axel Sjoberg. During Tuesday’s conference, Coach Caleb Porter praised all three incoming players — defender Grant Lillard and midfielders Emmanuel Boateng and Fatai Alashe — as tested talents who will add needed depth as the inevitable fatigue from a jam-packed schedule sets in.

“Every team needs MLS-proven guys,” Porter said. “In this situation, where we need a lot of guys to play in the next four months in tight windows, we don’t have time to get guys up to speed.” Zardes added some specific praise for his former LA Galaxy teammate Boateng: “I think he’s one of the fastest guys out there. His left foot is very nice.”

As for the existing roster, Porter said they’ve been spending these weeks fine-tuning their approach, making the kind of detailed tweaks that won’t be possible to implement during the grueling Phase One stretch. “Those are the hardest steps to make because they’re the little things that every coach is digging into once you have your system and your philosophy set, which we do,” Porter said. “It’s ingrained in the guys. … But there’s a lot of little details that mean you score more or you don’t, you give up goals or you don’t.”

Meanwhile, Zardes said the team has been able to get back into a regular rhythm due to MLS lifting some of the health precautions at training sessions. Previously players were required to arrive at the Crew’s Obetz facility in their practice gear and leave as soon as they were done; now they can once again change clothes onsite and linger afterwards to build camaraderie. Weightlifting at the team facility, once forbidden, is now allowed again in staggered shifts. With players no longer distracted by concerns such as washing their own practice jerseys, a sense of normalcy and focus are setting in, Zardes said. He’s excited for the Crew’s return to Mapfre, a sensation amplified by an intrasquad scrimmage at the stadium last Thursday. 

Zardes and Artur even appreciated the artificial crowd noise pumped into the stadium during the scrimmage, a controversial practice (at least among supporters) that will repeat during the Chicago match. For what it’s worth, the Columbus players and coaches found it comforting. “If you don’t have fans, that noise makes the feeling a little bit more normal instead of just a quiet place,” Artur said. “For me it was a nice experience. If we don’t have fans, I would be OK playing with that.” Porter concurred, “I thought it was nice to hear our supporters even though we didn’t have supporters there... We play for them. We know they’re the soul of our club.”

Regardless of the unusual circumstances, the Crew is stoked to be returning to Mapfre’s familiar confines as they begin what could be a very intense three or four months of soccer. “It’s gonna be great for us to get out there and be back on our home turf,” Zardes said, “and try to at least use the field as a home-field advantage.”