Crew View: Hello playoffs, goodbye Mapfre

Chris DeVille
Fans celebrate during the second half after the Columbus Crew scored their second goal during their match against FC Cincinnati at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 6, 2020. The Crew would go on to shut out Cincinnati, 3-0.

The Columbus Crew kicks off its 2020 playoff run at Mapfre Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 21, in what might be the team's final match at the venue. Various upsets could have the Crew returning home multiple times in this postseason, but if the bracket plays out as seeded, Columbus is fated to play out the rest of its postseason on the road.

When the third-seeded Black & Gold face the sixth-seeded New York Red Bulls in a single-elimination first-round Eastern Conference playoff match this weekend, it’ll be playing not just to extend their season but the lifespan of the league’s first soccer-specific stadium, known as Columbus Crew Stadium when it opened at the Ohio Expo Center back in 1999. Next year the Crew’s new Downtown stadium will open in Confluence Village, an expansion of the Arena District west of Huntington Park. Mapfre is being converted into the Crew’s new training center, the OhioHealth Performance Center.

The current stadium will not feature a typical playoff atmosphere Saturday. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Crew has been allowing only 1,500 paying fans per game in recent months. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the game is played with empty stands as a rapidly worsening coronavirus situation necessitates stricter lockdown measures. But at press time, there was still a chance for fans to attend Saturday’s contest and get one last (admittedly abnormal) Mapfre matchday experience.

More optimistic supporters will likely point out that the Crew could find themselves back home for more games at Mapfre. Here are all the ways that could happen, assuming Columbus continues to advance: If second-seeded Toronto FC is eliminated, Columbus will host a conference semifinal between Nov. 29 and Dec. 2. If Supporters Shield winners Philadelphia lose, Mapfre would be the site of the Eastern Conference final on Dec. 6. If the Crew makes it all the way to MLS Cup, the match would be at Mapfre unless the opponent is Sporting Kansas City because KC is the only Western Conference team that finished with more points per game than Columbus.

For any of these situations to play out, the Crew will first have to win Saturday against the Red Bulls. Both teams are coming off a win in their regular season finale: NYRB defeated Toronto to avoid facing a play-in game, and Columbus downed Atlanta United to preserve a first-round home-field advantage.

The Red Bulls, weirdly, will be playing its first game for a new coach. After Chris Armas was dismissed in early September, interim coach Bradley Carnell guided the team to the playoffs, only to be replaced by Gerhard Struber. The Austrian arrived in New Jersey with assistant coach Bernd Eibler last week upon receiving their work visas. They’re taking over a squad that isn’t as star-studded as prior Red Bulls rosters, but one that fought and clawed its way into the postseason.

Caleb Porter’s Crew, on the other hand, had four players nominated for league-wide awards. One of them, offensive catalyst Lucas Zelarayán, was named MLS Newcomer of the Year last week. Porter told reporters the award validates Zelarayán’s club-record transfer fee, reportedly close to $8 million: “It shows that in our recruitment, our scouting and our decisions while selecting Designated Players and key players for the roster, we got it right. It’s something he’s proud of and we’re proud of.”

Although Zelarayán missed a good chunk of the season with injuries, he was a clear difference-maker when he was present, contributing six goals, four assists, and an intangible creative dynamism. If he can stay healthy, it’s possible to imagine the Argentine spearheading a deep playoff run, particularly if fellow midfield stars such as Darlington Nagbe, Artur and Pedro Santos are on their game.

Striker Gyasi Zardes tied for second in the league with 12 goals, while Eloy Room, a finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year, showed his elite talent during the stretch run. In front of Room, the backline included two more awards finalists, Defender of the Year candidate Jonathan Mensah and Comeback Player of the Year contender Milton Valenzuela.

You could go on listing off key contributors for a while. It’s something this year’s Crew has in common with the all-hands-on-deck 2008 squad that won MLS Cup. “We know 2008, that’s the one everybody has talked about forever,” Porter said after the Atlanta match. “And we want to be ... the next one. That’s our goal, that’s our vision and that’s what we’re going to fight for.”