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Columbus seeking to regain that homefield edge

It wasn’t that long ago that Crew Stadium was a place of horror for visiting teams that dared enter the grounds that Lamar Hunt built.

Recapturing the glory days is the first priority for the Crew when they host Toronto FC in the season opener Saturday.

“It would be nice to win the first game to set the tone,” coach Robert Warzycha said. “We have to make sure this field is very tough for other teams to play on. We need to reestablish ourselves at home.”

The downfall began in late September when Mexico’s Cruz Azul took a 2-0 win on Sept. 23 in a Champions League group match. The loss was dismissed by some because it didn’t count against the active MLS record home unbeaten streak.

Yet it was the first crack in the façade because the Crew were itching to avenge a 5-0 loss in Mexico a month earlier but couldn’t.

Order was restored three days later when the Crew dominated the Beckham-less Los Angeles Galaxy 2-0 to run their home mark in league play to 16-0-6 plus two playoff wins since June 8, 2008.

The walls started swaying Sept. 29. The Crew could have clinched a berth in the Champions League quarterfinals with a win over visiting Saprissa of Costa Rica but allowed a stoppage-time goal for a 1-1 draw. Something like that wasn’t supposed to happen in front of the home supporters.

It got worse and the foundation crumbled as the expansion Seattle Sounders FC strutted into Crew Stadium on Oct. 3 and stunned the home boys 1-0 to snap the record streak at 24.

The game was significant not only because it was the return of former coach Sigi Schmid but standout Guillermo Barros Schelotto missed a penalty kick for the first time in a Crew uniform, one that would have produced the late equalizer.

“We played very attractive soccer,” Warzycha said. “We hit the post the first half. We missed a penalty. We made a mistake with the goal and the score was 1-0.”

After a pair of road games, the Crew ended the regular season with a 1-0 loss at home to New England to continue their late-season misery.

That was followed by a 3-2 defeat to Real Salt Lake in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals to end the reign of the defending MLS Cup champions.

RSL won the first at home 1-0 but the Crew opened up a 2-0 lead in the return match before the visitors stormed back to win the total goals series.

The Crew had an offseason to think about their failings at home and had a chance for some redemption March 8 in the first game of the Champions League quarterfinals against Toluca of Mexico. While the match ended 2-2, the Crew showed some old-time magic in Crew Stadium by scoring the final two goals. Now, it’s almost showtime again.

“Home-field advantage is huge for us,” defender Eric Brunner said. “We want to start a new streak. Teams know it’s an extremely tough place to play with our fans. We know the pitch like the back of our hands. It plays to our favor. We want to take it to any team that comes to our pitch.”