Columbus Crew was one of the 10 founding members of Major League Soccer under the ownership of legendary American sports entrepreneur Lamar Hunt.
Son of a Texas oil tycoon, Hunt helped establish the American Football League as a rival to NFL, coining the phrase ‘Super Bowl’ for the play-off showdown. An early champion of soccer after watching the 1966 World Cup in England, Hunt became a prime mover behind the NASL, keeping faith with the game even after losing millions of dollars.
A founding investor in MLS, Hunt promised and delivered the league’s first soccer-specific stadium for Columbus, bringing in his son Clark to oversee the development of successful franchises both in Ohio and in Kansas City.
In Columbus, the team selected United States international striker Brian McBride with the first pick in MLS’ inaugural player draft ahead of the 1996 season.
Ohio State University’s 100,000-seat college football stadium served as the team’s inappropriately sized home for its first three years. Columbus moved into the groundbreaking 20,000-seat Columbus Crew Stadium in 1999. Without a major sponsor until 2015 when Madrid-based insurance company Mapfre stepped in, the stadium became known as America’s Azteca after the U.S. national team beat Mexico on a freezing MidWest winter’s night in 2001, the 2-0 scoreline then repeated in iconic fashion in three subsequent World Cup qualifying matches until 2013.
Columbus Crew won its first trophy in 2002 by lifting the U.S. Open Cup, named after Lamar Hunt. The team consistently reached the MLS playoffs during its first decade without making any impression in the postseason.
That changed in 2008 when former Boca Juniors and Argentina playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto inspired the Black & Gold to its sole MLS championship after finishing the regular season with the league’s best record. Schelotto fittingly picked up the MLS Most Valuable Player award.
In 2013, Precourt Sports Ventures purchased the Columbus franchise from Hunt Sports Group and set about significantly rebranding the club. A new team logo was created and the initials “SC” were added to the official title.
A successful 2015 season saw Crew SC winning the MLS Eastern Conference and earning the right to host the MLS Cup Final. Western Conference winners Portland Timbers shaded the contest by 2-1 to deny Columbus a second MLS crown.
Crew supporters in the converted north stands are looking to playmaker Federico Higuaín, brother of Juve star Gonzalo, to inspire a 2017 revival after a lackluster 2016 campaign.
Mapfre Stadium, located on the grounds of the Ohio Expo Center and State Fairgrounds four miles north of Downtown Columbus, enjoys a unique status. The first soccer-specific stadium in MLS soon became a fortress, the drawbridge first pulled up in 2001 when the U.S. men’s national team famously beat Mexico 2-0 here, freezing temperatures and a red-hot atmosphere aiding the hosts. Until then, ‘home advantage’ in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying region had meant the U.S. treated to hostile welcomes in tropical Central America. Columbus has relatively few Hispanic residents.
The same scoreline was then repeated in subsequent competitive fixtures with America’s arch rivals in 2005 and 2009, by which time the north stands had been transformed into the Nordecke, a communal Crew supporters’ corner named in honor of local German heritage.
After a fourth consecutive 2-0 defeat in 2013, played out to the now familiar chants of ‘Dos a cero’, the Columbus Crew Stadium took its sponsor’s name of Mapfre. A late goal by Mexico’s veteran captain Rafael Márquez on November 11, 2016 – Veterans Day – broke the spell. After 15 years, 11 unbeaten games and only one goal conceded, the U.S. had finally succumbed.
Despite the rebranding of both team and stadium, the Mapfre hasn’t lost its edge. Seating is still standard aluminum and fans stand in the Nordecke.
The permanent stage that now dominates the north end, mainly because, smack centre behind the goal, it is the only part of the stadium that is covered, hosts rock concerts, most notably the three-day Rock on the Range festival every May.
Traveling fans – and Chicago is considered a local derby – are allocated one sector of the south end (#113-119) depending on demand, usually #119.
Prime seats are in the East and West Stands along the sidelines, #125-127 and #105-107 respectively.
Capacity is just below 20,000. Average gates for 2016 were 17,000.
Columbus is the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. without either a local or intercity rail connection. The Central Ohio Transit System (COTA) provides the city’s bus network but the stadium is poorly served.
The #4 bus runs up N. 4th Street parallel to the arena but there’s no way of crossing the rail tracks in between – as the crow flies, 4th St. & Alden Ave. should be close. Instead, you have to alight at the corner of N. 4th Street and E. 17th Avenue, walk back to the junction with E. 17th Avenue, walk under the rail bridge then take the first left, Korbel Avenue, until you reach the stadium – a good 20min away.
The #4 runs every 30min Sat & Sun from the intersection of W. Long St. and N. High St. Downtown, near the Elevator Brewery & Draught Haus. Pay $2 exact change on board.
For all the hassle, you may as well take a taxi – Express Cab of Columbus (614-822-8666) charges around $10 from Downtown.
The stadium (One Black & Gold Blvd, Columbus, OH 43211) is right next to the I-71. Take exit 111 onto 17th Ave., with ample General Parking ($15) as you enter through Gates 14-16. Be prepared for a long wait after the game.
The Ticket Office (Mon-Fri 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., from 10 a. m. on match weekends) is at the stadium Administrative Office. Will Call is located at Gate 5, photo ID required, the SouthWest Ticket Office.
Prices start at $27 behind the south goal, $30 for the upper tiers along the sidelines and $32 in sectors 134-135 behind the north goal, in the opposite corner to the Nordecke home supporters’ enclave.
Sideline seats near the north or south goal are $39, rising to $70 near the halfway line in sectors 105-107 and 125.
The Crew SC Shop (Mon-Fri 10 a. m. to 5 p. m., game days) at the southwest corner stocks merchandise from customized long-sleeved jerseys ($179.99) to pins ($7.99), as well as flags, snapback hats, Columbus skyline scarves and USB chargers.
There are all kinds of accoutrements for Tailgating, including can coolers, tumblers, growlers and shot glasses.
With the merging of supporters’ turfs to create the Nordecke, there’s a communal atmosphere in the Megatailgate area behind the South Stand, lot G, intersection of Korbel Ave. and Black & Gold Blvd..
Some 3 hours before kick-off, the tents of the Crew Union, the Hudson Street Hooligans, the Yellow Nation Army and others host lively fan parties, sometimes themed. Grills are set up, beers are varied and plentiful, it’s a case of wandering from one to the other and getting stuck in.
With its German heritage, a thriving contemporary craft-beer scene and a Brewery District Downtown, Columbus is one of the best destinations in MLS for pre- and postmatch revelry.
The best, most popular and nearest option for Columbus fans is Fourth Street Bar & Grill, one block from the Mapfre Stadium and meeting place of the Crew Union. Beers of every stripe are sunk with abandon against a backdrop of Black & Gold iconography on bare-brick walls.
In the heart of the Brewery District south of Downtown, the Columbus Brewing Company (CBC) uses locally harvested ingredients for its crafted IPA, Pale Ales and other beers costing about $6 for a pint. It also pitches itself as a pregame haunt for hockey fans heading to the nearby Nationwide Arena, with free parking, too.
Schmidt’s in the German Village is worth the trip to Columbus alone. The original Schmidt’s meat packing business opened in 1886 before this restaurant opened nearby in 1967 using authentic German recipes. Signature sausage platters featuring bratwursts and Frankfurters cost about $13, washed down with lashings of imported German beer.
For a more Irish pub feel, The Three-Legged Mare in the Arena District contains 15 TVs and two giant projection screens all focused on sport, where darts and pub quizzes are taken equally seriously.
Land-Grant Brewing Company is another excellent craft brewer operating out of a renovated 12,000-square-foot factory building in the East Franklinton neighborhood west of Downtown. Tours of the site are available on Saturday afternoons. Land-Grant brews Glory, an American wheat beer designated as the official brew for Columbus supporters. Glasses and growlers bearing the Crew SC logo are also available.
1979 The Columbus Magic joins the American Soccer League, founded in the 1930s and increasingly unstable given the growth of the North American Soccer League. The Magic shares Franklin County Stadium with the Columbus Clippers minor-league baseball team. The Magic wins the ASL’s Eastern Division and reaches the national championship game before losing by a single goal to the Sacramento Gold.
1980 The Magic folds after its second season in the ASL.
1984 Columbus Capitals plays in the newly launched American Indoor Soccer Association with games taking place at Battelle Hall on the current site of the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Yugoslav forward Lesh Shkreli leads the team and the league with 59 goals to pick up the AISA Most Valuable Player award.
1986 The Capitals disbands at the end of its second indoor season.
1994 Columbus Xoggz joins a third-tier nationwide league that becomes known as the United States Interregional Soccer League with games held at Dublin Coffman High School.
1996 Columbus Crew begins play in Major League Soccer at the vast Ohio Stadium. The Xoggz changes its name to the Ohio Xoggz before folding at the end of the USISL season.
1997 Ohio indoor franchise the Canton Invaders relocates to the state capital and changes its name to the Columbus Invaders for one single, disastrous season in the National Professional Soccer League. The team is best remembered – perhaps only remembered – for its record 52-18 defeat to local rivals Cleveland Crunch at Battelle Hall.