Crew View: Five storylines to watch in 2021

The defending MLS champs (let that soak in) kick off the new season tonight

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew SC fans in the Nordecke unveil a TIFO during the first half of the MLS match against New York City at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus on Sunday, March 1, 2020. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Get ready for one of the most eventful seasons in Columbus Crew history.

The defending MLS champions are scheduled to open their new Arena District stadium on July 3. Before that, the team launches its defense of the league championship on April 18 — one of four MLS home games at the old stadium this year. And before that, the Crew begins CONCACAF Champions League play tonight (Thursday, April 8) in Nicaragua, the first leg of a matchup with Real Estelí FC that wraps up a week from tonight in Columbus. (Yes, the Crew has a home game against elite international competition three days before its MLS home opener.)

Ahead of tonight’s game in Estelí — which will air on TUDN and FS1 at 8 p.m. — here are five storylines that will define the 2021 season.

1. The Crew could be insanely busy.

As in Europe, where top clubs from around the continent compete in the UEFA Champions League in addition to their regular league play, winners of various MLS trophies are rewarded with invites to participate in international competitions. As reigning MLS Cup champions, the Crew will not only be playing with targets on their backs, they could also be getting less time to recover between contests.

In addition to 34 regular season MLS matches, Columbus is participating in the CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament comprising 16 top clubs from across North and Central America and the Caribbean. That could add as many as seven competitive matches to the schedule if the team advances all the way to the CCL final on Oct. 28. In late September, the Crew will also host Mexico’s Liga MX champions in a one-off match called the Campeones Cup. 

Columbus may also have to weave in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a 107-year-old domestic tournament involving pro and semi-pro teams from every echelon of American soccer. Typically all or most U.S.-based MLS teams participate, but this year’s Open Cup will be truncated to minimize COVID risks; the whole thing will take place in May and June with only 16 teams total. The Open Cup will invite the eight U.S.-based MLS teams with the best records as of May 3, marking the first time since 2002 that the league has used regular season play as an Open Cup qualifier.

However, the U.S. Soccer Federation already canceled the first round of a planned 24-team Open Cup due to COVID concerns, and the United States Adult Soccer Association — a separate governing body overseeing amateur adult soccer — recently voted unanimously to recommend canceling the whole tournament this year for the same reason. If things do progress, they will begin May 18 and 19. Competing in the Open Cup could add up to four more matches to the docket. In the unlikely event that the Crew advances to the final of both the Open Cup and the Champions League, it will be looking at a grueling 46 competitive games in seven months.

2. The Crew could be obscenely deep.

As the 2020 campaign made clear, Columbus already had one of the most loaded rosters in MLS. But the team faltered near the end of the regular season when injuries sidelined a number of key players. Given how many more games the Crew might be fitting in this year, similar attrition feels eminently possible. The team also expects to have quite a few players called up to their respective national teams as qualification for World Cup 2022 ramps up.

Anticipating 2021’s more rigorous schedule, Columbus loaded up on new acquisitions this offseason. Presumably for budgetary reasons, personnel maestros Tim Bezbatchenko and Pat Onstad mostly focused on attracting prized free agents from within the league rather than spring for a bunch of overseas talent. They did extremely well on the market, and all the key players from last year are back. Coach Caleb Porter has to like what he sees.

The hope is to be able to rest some of their most important players without missing a beat when the midweek games start to pile up. Veteran striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, a two-time MLS Golden Boot winner, will be there to spell Gyasi Zardes. Porter can plug in Alexandru Matan — a 21-year-old attacking midfielder from Romania — for Lucas Zelarayán rather than moving Darlington Nagbe or Pedro Santos out of their main position. Winger Kevin Molino should compete for first-team minutes with Santos, Luis Diaz, and Derrick Etienne Jr.

With all the options in place, maintaining chemistry in various configurations could be a challenge. In an interview with the Dispatch, Porter said he intends to mix and match lineups rather than simply fielding a starting 11 and a backup squad: “Maybe we're mixing groups based on trying to put out a different game plan for certain games. There'll be so much rotation this year.”

Columbus Crew SC midfielder Artur (8) traps the ball against Minnesota United FC in the 2nd half during their MLS game at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on September 23, 2020.

3. The Western Conference is about to become a distant memory.

For years, fans and pundits have honored the West as the stronger of the two conferences in MLS. But in 2020, the four highest point totals in the league all came out of the East. Some have argued that the Crew, one of those top four teams, benefited from playing weak competition like FC Cincinnati multiple times. It was hard to compare the conferences, though, because they didn’t face off against each other once the regular season relaunched during the pandemic. 

The MLS schedule is once again weighted heavily by conference this year, which the league hopes will mitigate COVID concerns. “In an effort to minimize travel and time on the road, the number of regional matches has been increased and clubs will travel the day of the game whenever possible,” the league announced upon revealing its schedule. As a result, only two of the Crew’s 34 regular season matches are against Western Conference competition.

Those two matchups are juicy ones, though. On June 27, Columbus will make its first visit to Austin to face off against former investor-operator Anthony Precourt’s expansion team, Austin FC. (You’ll have to wait until at least 2022 to root against Austin FC in Columbus, barring a surprise encounter in the Open Cup.) Then, on Aug. 21, the Crew will host the Seattle Sounders in a rematch of last year’s MLS Cup final. That game will be among the first played at the Crew’s new stadium. Speaking of which...

4. Goodbye Historic Crew Stadium, hello New Crew Stadium.

The team’s sponsorship deal with Mapfre Insurance has expired, and it hasn't yet sold naming rights to the new stadium. The team’s current home will soon be subsumed into its new training facility, the OhioHealth Performance Center. In the meantime, they’re calling the old place Historic Crew Stadium and the freshly constructed facility New Crew Stadium. (Whoever came up with that branding deserves a raise.) 

Columbus will be playing at the venue formerly known as Mapfre up through the end of June, but the schedule worked out so that 13 of their 17 regular season home games will be at the new venue. To avoid digging themselves a hole early on, the Crew will have to make the most of its final home games at Historic Crew Stadium: April 18 against the Philadelphia Union, May 8 against D.C. United, May 29 against Toronto FC, and June 19 against the Chicago Fire.

The Crew's new Arena District stadium is in the final phases of construction and is scheduled to open in July.

5. Will the fans actually be able to watch the games?

In recent years, the Crew has had a bit of a visibility problem. Since 2019, the vast majority of the team's games have been broadcast locally through Fox Sports Ohio and its affiliate SportsTime Ohio. But due to contract disputes with the stations’ parent company, Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc., fewer and fewer TV providers have been carrying the network lately. Last year both YouTube TV and Hulu TV dropped the Sinclair stations partway through the season, much to the frustration of fans who’d switched to those services specifically to watch the Crew. 

Others who subscribed to the ESPN+ service due to the promise of accessing every MLS game were sometimes faced with regional blackouts instituted to ensure teams attract fans at the gate. But during a pandemic-addled season in which attendance was prohibited or severely limited — to say nothing of personal safety concerns that kept some fans home — showing up at the stadium was often not an option. It’s hard to root for a team when there is no legal way to watch their games.

This year at least seven Columbus matches will be nationally televised on ABC, ESPN and FS1 — a major uptick from past seasons that surely has a lot to do with the Crew’s status as defending champs. The rest of the games, though, will be on Bally Sports Ohio or Bally Sports Great Lakes, the same Sinclair networks from last year under new branding. Supporters might once again find themselves scrambling for illegal streams in order to watch their favorite club.

COVID is not vanquished just yet, so the Crew is only allowing 3,600 paying customers to attend next Thursday’s CCL match against Real Estelí. But with vaccination efforts forging ahead, presumably the team will be able to host more and more fans as the season progresses. As for away games, though, only fans with access to the Bally stations will be able to watch, which means Crew fans will need to subscribe to a traditional cable service like Spectrum, a satellite provider like DirecTV, or the lone streaming option that carries Bally: AT&T TV. In a year where Columbus is poised to be a must-watch club, the situation is less than ideal.