25 years after professional soccer comes to Columbus, a city celebrates Crew's new home

Joe Dandron
The Columbus Dispatch
Suzi Clow, of the Columbus SoHud neighborhood, leads songs and chants Saturday while marching with fans down Nationwide Boulevard before the inaugural match at Field between the Columbus Crew and the New England Revolution.

Frankie Hejduk took off down High Street leading a crowd of hundreds.

His mind raced with memories of his time as an MLS Cup champion with the Columbus Crew as the city's streets overflowed with fans of the club.

The opening of the new home of the Columbus Crew had finally arrived: Columbus and the New England Revolution were just hours from kickoff Saturday at the brand new Field in the Arena District.

Hejduk celebrated 25 years of the Columbus Crew's presence in the city with all those who advanced down High Street with him. There were chants, flags, and a band  accompanying Hejduk on the path to his former team's new palace. 

The "March to the Match" south on High Street to Nationwide Boulevard led by Hejduk — not to mention former Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen, had begun, but the festivities in Downtown Columbus had been underway since early on Saturday, and the celebration of soccer in central Ohio was felt all across Columbus and beyond. 

"We've ... got a lot of history walking down this street right now. That's what's pretty cool man," Hejduk said. "This is all we ever wanted, man: to be Downtown and see the town in Black and Gold and everyone supporting it, supporting soccer. This is unbelievable. ... I couldn't have pictured this moment 26 years ago."

Come game time, with 20,371 seats at the new $313.9 million stadium, a near-capacity crowd cheered and heckled, and the party around the Arena District roared on too. Ultimately, the game ended in a 2-2 draw.

It was a party, that Sally Slocum, 60, of Worthington said is not just about supporting a team but also a city. 

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She leaned against the brick wall outside of Nationwide Arena and gazed at the thousands that had gathered to celebrate a growing game in the United States.

"It's really not just fandom, it's city support," said Slocum, a season ticket holder. "I've been in Columbus for nearly 60 years, and there have been times where I've been able to sit down on High Street and nobody would drive by.

"To see this level of support, not only from the loyal fans, season ticket holders, or the casual fan ... I love sports, but it goes beyond sports. It's just an investment in the city."

As hundreds poured out of the High Street and Short North-area bars along the march's path to the stadium, it was apparent that the build-up to Saturday's festivities was long-awaited.

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"It's really exciting to know that this is going to be our home every single game that we play (in Columbus)," Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter said after the game. "To know that atmosphere is going to be exactly like we all envisioned it would be, dreamt it would be – it exceeded all expectations. We knew it would be a big day, we knew it would be loud but it was absolutely critical, the fans, and that helped us come back from two goals."

A love for the beautiful game

For Nick Auddino, 36, of Westerville, the club's move to the new stadium is something he will always cherish. He strolled alongside the walls of Field with his two children: Laina, 6, and Jordan, 12. 

Nick Auddino, of Westerville, walks in front of a Columbus Crew logo on the west side of Field before attending the inaugural match between the Columbus Crew and the New England Revolution Saturday. Auddino is a longtime Crew supporter who has only missed one game for the birth of his son. His children Jordan, 12, and Laina, 6, Auddino, were attending the match with him.

Since becoming a fan, the only time he had missed a match was for the birth of his son.

"Dude, this is amazing," Auddino said. "It's just amazing, man. We’ve got a new stadium. My kids are excited. ... They have not seen the stadium yet."

That he was able to share Saturday with his two children was something he never thought would happen in 2017, when the team nearly left and before the Save the Crew movement rescued the club from plans for relocation to Austin, Texas.

"Through Save the Crew, through everything. I’m so happy the team is still here," Auddino said.

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Curt Bixel, 55, of Upper Arlington, stands amongst the "March to the Match" on Saturday in Downtown Columbus. Bixel has been a fan for much of his life and played the game he has grown to love as a young man.

"I played soccer growing up ... Seeing this? It's amazing," said Curt Bixel, 55, of Upper Arlington as he watched with a grin. He is glad the club remained in the city he's lived in for most of his life and that fans have taken hold of his favorite game so firmly. 

The fanfare that swirled around him was all the evidence he needed that all 20,000 inside Field agreed.