MLS is back. What else is new with the Crew?

Chris DeVille
Gyasi Zardes, right, Lucas Zelarayan and the rest of the Crew will be placed in one of the three Eastern Conference groups at the tournament in Orlando, Florida.

Columbus Crew SC made it two (undefeated!) matches into the 2020 season before MLS shut down due to coronavirus, along with the rest of the global pro sports industry. Now the league is set to return with a month-long tournament in Orlando. In the interim, all kinds of Crew news has been breaking. 

When will the team resume play and under what circumstances? What’s up with the new Downtown stadium and Mapfre Stadium’s planned transformation into a training center and community sports park? How have the club and its players spoken out about the Black Lives Matter movement? Read on for the answers.

MLS Is Back

All 26 MLS teams will participate in the MLS Is Back tournament, which, if the general public has any sense, will colloquially be known as the COVID Cup. It will run from July 8 to Aug. 11 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. The entire tournament will be played without fans in attendance and broadcast on TV. 

The MLS Is Back setup will be similar to the World Cup. Each conference has been split into three groups. The Crew is in Group E alongside Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls and in-state foe Cincinnati FC. Yes, the Hell Is Real rivalry is coming to Orlando. Hell Is Real, even at Disney World!

Teams will play three Group Stage matches each, which will count toward the MLS regular season standings. (The league’s plan right now is to resume its schedule at teams’ normal home venues after the tournament wraps up — maybe with fans in the stands, depending on local regulations — followed by playoffs and MLS Cup as originally scheduled.)  

The specifics of the tournament schedule have not yet been revealed, but during the Group Stage matches will occur daily at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. in an attempt to capture a national and international TV audience. “The ability for the MLS to get off the ground and be one of the first leagues to do so is very important because there are opportunities for us to compete, and to have the attention of all of our fans,” team president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko told reporters Thursday. 

Sixteen teams will advance to the Knockout Stage: The top two teams from each group, plus the four best third-place finishers. Knockout Stage matches won’t count toward the regular season standings. The winner of the Aug. 11 final will earn a berth into the 2021 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, a prestigious international tournament featuring top clubs from across North and Central America and the Caribbean. Players can also win bonuses from a $1.1 million prize pool, though specifics aren’t yet available.

MLS Is Back will span 54 matches in total and, according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, will result in nearly 2,000 people descending upon the Disney complex (where the NBA is also tentatively planning to relaunch its season on July 31). MLS teams can arrive in Orlando for pre-tournament training as early as June 24. Many, including the Crew, have begun voluntary small-group training sessions in their home cities within the past two weeks.

Rules will be slightly different from normal FIFA regulations. For instance, teams are allowed five substitutions instead of the usual three, but they only get to stop the game to make subs three times (so they’ll use to make more than one sub at once, or make some at halftime). Knockout Stage matches tied at the end of regulation will skip straight to a penalty shootout, forgoing the standard overtime periods.

Construction Crew

The Crew’s new Downtown stadium is well underway and still scheduled to open in July 2021. That’s just over a year from now. Relatedly, on Wednesday the club began selling 2021 season tickets to 2020 season ticket members and hosted its first virtual town hall on Zoom showcasing the new facility. The Crew had been planning to preview its new home at the brick-and-mortar “experience center” at North High Street and Second Avenue in the Short North, but COVID has delayed the center’s opening indefinitely. Until the next town hall, fans can keep track of the progress via a 24-hour construction livestream at the team’s official site.

In early May, Columbus City Council unanimously approved a $500,000 payment to begin designing a new 750-spot parking garage in Confluence Village, the new Downtown development west of the Arena District to be anchored by the 20,000-seat soccer stadium. A month later, the Ohio House Finance Committee backtracked on a plan to reduce state contributions to the stadium by $20 million. Even with government budgets heavily strained by the ripple effects of COVID-19, public funding for the new stadium and its district continues undeterred.

As for the Crew’s current home, the club broke ground Monday on the OhioHealth Performance Center, its new headquarters and training facility at the Mapfre Stadium site, which is also set to open next year. Additions to the existing infrastructure include a new 42,000-square-foot building. A new community sports park will supposedly be installed adjacent to the renovated Mapfre site, but details on that have yet to emerge. In the meantime, the Crew site features a Performance Center construction cam as well.

Black Lives Matter

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world, current and former members of the Crew organization have been speaking out about the need for social justice and anti-racist reform. 

On a corporate level, the team issued an unspecific statement in conjunction with the Cleveland Browns — whose ownership group overlaps significantly with the Crew’s — calling for “meaningful dialogue,” “difficult conversation,” “real empathy,” and “productive and non-violent action” while promising to collaborate with the community on solutions for these complex issues. The Crew organization, leadership from the team’s Nordecke supporters section, and illustrator Hakim Callwood also teamed up to paint a Black Lives Matter mural and messaging in the Short North.

U.S. men’s national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who left the Crew for Europe last year, has been a prominent voice on the subject. “If I’m going to wear the U.S. flag, I need to know that it stands for something worth defending,” Steffen wrote in a lengthy statement on Twitter announcing the launch of VOYCEnow, a group of athletes and fans promoting equality and justice.

Players currently on the Crew roster also have spoken out. On June 1, Derrick Etienne Jr. shared a note on Twitter detailing his experience being pulled over twice by Columbus police twice in the same day on the grounds that “you look like you have warrants.” He later discussed the situation on broadcaster and former MLS player Taylor Twellman’s ESPN FC showBanter

“As American people we must put behind foolish and hateful stereotypes and accept all people the way God intended,” Etienne said, “by the content of our character not the color of our skin.” Teammate Jordan Hamilton tweeted that he witnessed the racial profiling from Etienne’s passenger seat. “The sheer ignorance to the deeply rooted problem is shown by how poorly these suations are handled, and that is the most frightening thing," Hamilton said.

Darlington Nagbe also chimed in with a statement about being the parent of biracial children. “It’s disheartening, confusing, and in some ways selfish to feel a sense of relief when I look at my kids who are lighter skinned and think maybe they’ll have a better chance to succeed,” Nagbe wrote. “Maybe they won’t have to suffer from as much racism. I can’t believe that thought has to go through my mind when I look at my babies!!!!”