On June 15, 1994, Columbus, Ohio, was introduced as the first of 10 inaugural Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs. With more than 11,500 season ticket deposits and plans to build a soccer-specific stadium, the decision to award a team to Ohio’s capital city was an easy one.
Exactly four years and 11 months later, on May 15, 1999, the Crew forever etched its place in American sports history by christening Columbus Crew Stadium, the country’s first major-league stadium built specifically for soccer. A standing-room only crowd of 24,741 looked on as the Crew defeated New England, 2-0, in what was hailed by then-MLS Commissioner Doug Logan as a “re-launching of the League.”
In fact, the Crew has left behind a legacy of firsts on its way to establishing itself as one of the top organizations in Major League Soccer, both on and off the field.
Born of the legacy of the 1994 World Cup held in the United States, Major League Soccer has harnessed the momentum of what is widely considered to have been the most successful World Cup in history. Not only is MLS establishing itself as the fifth major professional sports league in America, but it also strives to create and sustain a style of soccer that is both entertaining and competitive on an international level.
1996: Building The Foundation
The Crew’s foundation began to take shape on February 6, 1996, when Columbus selected Brian McBride, a two-time All-American forward from Saint Louis University, with the first overall selection in the Inaugural MLS Draft.
Joining McBride on the first Crew roster was the team’s first allocated player, international superstar Doctor Khumalo, arguably the most famous player ever to play for South Africa, and Brian Maisonneuve, the 1994 Hermann Trophy winner from Indiana University.
Playing its home matches at historic Ohio Stadium, the Crew kicked off its inaugural season at “The Horseshoe” against D.C. United in front of a crowd of 25,266. Using two McBride goals and great goalkeeping from Bo Oshoniyi, the Black & Gold cruised to the first victory in team history, blanking United 4-0.
The team’s first season was a roller-coaster ride that saw the Crew endure the resignation of head coach Timo Liekoski 22 games into season. Despite that, the Crew was able to rally and go 9-1 in its last 10 games under interim coach Tom Fitzgerald. Joining Fitzgerald as a catalyst for the stretch run was goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who went 8-1 down the stretch. With the late-season surge, the Crew earned its first playoff berth. On September 25, the Crew hosted its first-ever playoff game, dropping a 2-0 decision to the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Although Columbus rallied to win Game 2, the Mutiny’s home-field advantage proved to be too much to overcome and the Black & Gold were eliminated in three games.
Crew fans were also winners in 1996, as USA Today voted them “best fans in the League”. In its first season, the Crew averaged 18,950 per game and drew its single-game record crowd of 31,550 to the Sept. 15 regular-season finale, which ended in a 2-0 victory over the MetroStars.
In addition to being the best fans, the “Crew Experience” was graded an outstanding entertainment value by Gentleman Associates, an Indianapolis-based research firm that conducted such surveys in 1996.
1997: First Appearance in the Conference Finals
The Crew kicked-off its second season in March of 1997. Another up-and-down season saw the Crew advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where it fell to D.C. United, which went on to claim its second MLS Cup title in as many seasons.
New to the team in 1997 were U.S. National Team regulars Thomas Dooley and Mike Lapper. Along with Friedel, they formed the backbone of one of the league’s top defenses.
The Crew completed the first two months of the season in first place, before a mid-season slide knocked it to fourth. Consistent with the team’s hard-working image, Columbus was able to rebound late in the year, placing it in playoff contention. As the playoff race intensified, so did the Crew’s play, as Coach Fitzgerald’s squad captured victories in three of its final four games. The late run vaulted Columbus into third place in the Eastern Conference, up one spot from its finish in 1996.
The Crew’s first-round series was a rematch of the previous year, but the result was dramatically different. The Crew turned the tables on the second-seeded Mutiny, gaining a measure of revenge for their first-round defeat in 1996 with a two-game sweep of Tampa Bay. The upset gave the Crew its first ever playoff series victory and set the stage for the Eastern Conference Finals against D.C. United.
The Conference Finals were a different story, as defending champ United put an end to the Crew’s second MLS campaign, winning the series two games to zero.
1998: A Soccer Stadium On The Horizon
As the 1998 season approached, player movement and the anticipation of plans for a new stadium highlighted the Crew’s offseason. Perhaps the biggest change was star goalkeeper Brad Friedel’s departure to Liverpool of the English Premier League. More than adequate replacements were found though, as U.S. National Team goalkeeper Juergen Sommer was lured from his English club team, Queens Park Rangers, and Mark Dougherty, MLS’s all-time wins leader entering the 1998 season, was brought in from Tampa Bay. In addition to player movement, the Crew’s search for a stadium of its own continued to be a hot topic and a high priority. In May of 1997, the Crew witnessed the fall of Issue 1, a Franklin County proposal that would have provided the team with a downtown home. Then, on Feb. 10, 1998, City of Dublin voters rejected a proposal that would have provided a home for the Crew in their suburban community.
With renovations at Ohio Stadium scheduled to begin after the 1998 season, “America’s Hardest Working Team” was confronting its biggest challenge to date: finding a new home for 1999.
The most exciting news of 1998 had to be when the Ohio Expositions Commission voted 6-2 to approve the land lease for a soccer-specific stadium on the grounds of the Ohio Expo Center on May 12. The new stadium site cleared its last hurdle when then-Governor George Voinovich gave the project his stamp of approval on June 9. The Crew and its fans would finally have a home to call their own.
Plans for the site were officially unveiled on July 7 and the groundbreaking on August 14 featured then-MLS Commissioner Doug Logan, who announced that the Crew would host not only the MLS All-Star Game in 2000, but also MLS Cup in 2001.
On the field, another new mix of players would prove vital to the team’s success in 1998, with the most significant addition being Stern John, a Trinidad & Tobago star who captured A-League Rookie of the Year honors in 1997.
The Crew was well represented at the 1998 World Cup in France, placing five players in the world’s largest sporting event. Thomas Dooley, Brian McBride, Juergen Sommer and Brian Maisonneuve were all named to the U.S. National Team, while then-Crew midfielder Andy Williams played for his native Jamaica. Dooley captained the American squad, while McBride headed home the U.S.’s lone goal of the competition in a 2-1 loss to Iran.
The Crew’s contributions to France ‘98 meant Columbus had to rely heavily on its depth, as the international players trained for and traveled to France through the heart of the Crew’s MLS schedule. In their absence, Columbus went 3-4, with two of the losses coming via shootouts, and managed to stay in third place.
Using an array of lineups, the Crew eventually overtook the MetroStars for second place with a 3-0 victory over LA on Aug. 29. The team would later make a charge for first -- before settling for a second place finish -- which secured home-field advantage in the playoffs for the first time.
Crew players also excelled on an individual basis in 1998, including Budweiser Scoring Champion Stern John, who emerged from the pack with a late-season explosion to finish the season with
a League-high 57 points, on 26 goals and five assists.
Playing in his third straight MLS All-Star Game, McBride claimed the game’s MVP award, notching one goal and adding two assists for the USA All-Stars in the first half. Following the All-Star game, McBride again displayed his knack for spectacular finishes by taking home the MasterCard Goal of the Year award for his acrobatic sidewinding full-volley goal in a 3-0 win over Chicago July 9 at Ohio Stadium.
Much like the regular season, the 1998 playoffs provided Crew fans with plenty of excitement. Columbus swept the MetroStars in the first round, completing the sweep in dramatic fashion when Juergen Sommer knocked away the final shootout attempt to give the Crew a 2-1 victory on the road at Giants Stadium.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Crew met a familiar foe in two-time defending MLS champ D.C. United. After falling in the opening game, Columbus returned home for the last MLS game ever played at Ohio Stadium. A torrential downpour failed to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm or bog-down the Crew offense, as McBride exploded for his second two-goal game of the playoffs. Columbus cruised to a 4-2 victory, snapping United’s MLS-record 13-game playoff win streak and forcing the series to a decisive third game in the process. But United would prevail in Game 3, riding the momentum of a raucous RFK Stadium crowd of more than 20,000 to a 3-0 win.
Yet another 1998 storyline was the Crew’s run in the U.S. Open Cup. After advancing to the final through preliminary round games during the summer, the championship match against the Chicago Fire in Virginia Beach was postponed because of Hurricane Bonnie. The match was rescheduled for Oct. 30 at Soldier Field in Chicago. On a soggy night in the Windy City, the Crew was welcomed by nearly 19,000 fans waiting for the newly crowned MLS champions' homecoming. A valiant Crew effort would fall just short, when the Fire’s Frank Klopas scored the game-winner in sudden-death overtime, giving Chicago a 2-1 win and ending the Crew’s 1998 campaign.
1999: A Historic Season
As it waited for the May 1999 opening of Crew Stadium, the team and front office spent January, February, March and April preparing to make history and change the perception of soccer in the United States.
For Fitzgerald and company, that entailed playing the first seven games of the season on the road before even playing a minute in the team’s new home. Remarkably, the team emerged from the extended road trip with a 5-2 record and sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference.
Meanwhile, back in central Ohio, Crew fans snatched up an MLS-record 9,282 season tickets, breaking the team’s old league record of 9,078 set in 1996. The final 1,000 single-game tickets for Crew Stadium’s Inaugural Game sold out in eight minutes, meaning that one of America’s most important soccer spectacles sold out more than a month in advance.
Clearly, Crew Stadium’s opening was the soccer story of the year in 1999. Some 39 publications ran more than 80 stories on the stadium and its Inaugural Game. Those articles reached an audience of more than 40 million readers, creating an estimated value of more than $700,000 in advertising.
About the only thing that could have ruined the May 15 home opener would have been a Crew loss. Forward Jeff Cunningham put those fears to rest in the game’s 10th minute however, when he rocketed an eight- yard blast past New England goalkeeper Walter Zenga for the stadium’s first goal. The overflow crowd of 24,741 rose to their feet and Columbus rode the momentum to a 2-0 win.
Although the Crew wouldn’t go undefeated in their new home, it did help spark the team to a club best 19-13 record. Crew fans also took a liking to the new venue, and with an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 19,000 for the regular-season home finale, Columbus (MLS’s smallest market) surged past L.A. to capture the 1999 MLS attendance championship with an average home attendance of 17,696.
On the field, there were many stories to follow in 1999, not the least of which was the play of goalkeeper Mark Dougherty and the Crew defense, which posted the lowest goals against average in the Eastern Conference.
Dougherty recorded his milestone 50th career victory in the 4-2 win on August 18 against the MetroStars at Giants Stadium. For his outstanding play and consistency, he also was recognized as the Crew’s Most Valuable Player and BIC Defender of the Year at the end of the season.
Also in 1999, defender Mike Clark became the first Crew player to appear in 100 games for the Black & Gold, while Brian McBride notched his 100th career point by heading home corner kicks in the 76th and 81st minutes of a 2-1 win over the Miami Fusion on September 26.
Unfortunately for the Crew’s opponents, Stern John, the team’s Trinidadian super striker was also back in the mix for Columbus in 1999. MLS’s 1998 Budweiser Scoring Champion managed to shake off a slight slump in the early going to post an 18-goal season, which featured two hat tricks among four multi-goal games and a game-tying goal in the final seconds of a shootout win against San Jose. John would later end his two-year stint with the Crew having amassed an astonishing 52 goals in 65 MLS appearances.
The Crew’s hot start, with a 10-2 combined record against the West, enabled the team to occupy sole possession of second place from May 29 through September 18, when Columbus clinched second place with a 1-0 shootout win at New England.
A familiar foe awaited the Crew in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as Columbus was matched against an improved Tampa Bay side that seemed primed to pull a first- round upset. The Crew had other intentions though, as a two-goal game by John and a three-point game by Brian West made quick work of the upstart Mutiny.
Another rematch with D.C. United in the Eastern Conference Finals was set, meaning that the Crew would need at least one win at RFK Stadium, where it was winless in its previous 11 visits.
A late goal by Cunningham in Game 1 was not enough to overcome a steady performance by United, which coasted to a 2-1 win. Back in Columbus, United quickly gained the upper hand in Game 2, stunning the Crew Stadium crowd with a seventh- minute goal that gave D.C. a 1-0 lead. The Crew’s fortunes took a positive turn in the 20th minute, when Ansil Elcock knotted the score at 1-1, and a brilliant goal by Cunningham just prior to halftime seemed to put United on its heels.
In what would be his final home game at Crew Stadium, John gave the Crew faithful perhaps the most fitting farewell possible, blitzing United for a second-half hat trick that eased Columbus to a 5-1 win. Despite his impending departure to Nottingham Forest of the English First Division (announced on November 15), his feat that day merely reinforced the fact that John would remain a Crew legend for years to come.
But Game 3 would not feature such a storybook ending, as United and a RFK throng of more than 21,000 fans were too much for the Crew to overcome. United would take the deciding game 4-0, en route to its third MLS Cup Championship.
2000: New Look For League, New Heights for Crew Stadium
MLS’s fifth year arrived with an array of new looks instituted by new MLS Commissioner Don Garber. The most significant – and most hailed – changes were the elimination of both the shootout and the game clock that counted down from 45 minutes.
For the first time in 2000, MLS games could end in ties and official match time was kept on the field by the referee, bringing the league’s rules more in line with the rest of the world. Realignment created three four-team divisions, replacing the two six-team conferences, and “MLS ExtraTime,” ESPN2’s weekly news and highlights program, debuted.
Columbus opened the season with many familiar faces, along with a few new ones. Defender/midfielders Mike Duhaney (the 1997 MLS Rookie of the Year, acquired in a trade from the MetroStars for Thomas Dooley) and Mario Gori, a member of D.C. United’s 1996 and 1997 MLS Cup championship squads joined the fold and veteran forward Dante Washington returned to Columbus after a three-game stint in 1996.
All Washington did was put together one of the best offensive seasons in Crew history, with 39 points on a career-high 15 goals and nine assists. Veteran midfielder Robert Warzycha also fashioned the best season of his MLS career with six goals and a then- team-record 13 assists for 25 points to earn the Crew’s Honda MVP award.
But none of it was enough to keep Columbus from falling short in its bid to qualify for postseason play again, and the Crew was on the outside looking in as the playoffs began for the first time ever.
It didn’t help that Brian McBride (U.S.) and Ansil Elcock (Trinidad & Tobago) missed significant time for 2002 World Cup qualifying and that McBride, along with a host of others, were bitten by the injury bug.
But the 2000 season will be remembered for many things, among them Warzycha scoring the first-ever regular-season golden goal in MLS history to defeat San Jose 2-1 in the home opener; the emergence of Brian West, who came into his own in his third season in the league; Matt Napoleon’s trip to Australia as the alternate goalie on the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team; and the gritty, hard-nosed play of Gori and defender Mike Clark.
Most of all, 2000 will be remembered as the year Crew Stadium played host to its first MLS All-Star Game and World Cup qualifying match. Standing-room-only crowds packed the stadium on both occasions – with 23,495 on hand for the July 29 All-Star Game and 24,430 for the U.S-Costa Rica qualifier on Oct. 11 – further cementing Crew Stadium’s important place on the U.S. soccer landscape.
2001: Coaching Change, Change in Fortunes
The Crew’s sixth season was marked in the early going by just the second coaching change in club history, but that change sparked a major turnaround which propelled Columbus back into the MLS Cup playoffs after a one-year absence.
The Crew was full of optimism entering the season, adopting the motto “Destiny 2001” as a rallying cry to reach MLS Cup 2001, which would be played at Crew Stadium on Oct. 21.
New arrivals Tom Presthus, a championship goalkeeper acquired in a draft-day trade with D.C. United, Tenywa Bonseu, a Ugandan international defender acquired via Allocation, and 2002 MLS SuperDraft picks Duncan Oughton and Edson Buddle joined a solid returning nucleus to fuel the optimism.
But following a 1-3-2 start, which made its record 1-8-2 in its last 11 matches stretching back to the end of the 2000 season, the Crew dismissed head coach Tom Fitzgerald – who had been at the helm since Aug. 1996 – and replaced him on an interim basis with his top assistant, Greg Andrulis, on May 17.
Two nights later, on May 19, the Andrulis era commenced with a bang at Crew Stadium, though the new coach could hardly have imagined that his debut would turn out to be one of the most dramatic games in Crew history. With old rival D.C. United in town, Brian McBride gave Columbus a 1-0 lead in the 25th minute, energizing the crowd of 18,491.The Crew maintained its advantage into the second half, but that’s when the wheels appeared to fall off. Two red-card ejections in a span of eight minutes – Ansil Elcock in the 59th minute and Bonseu in the 67th – had Columbus reeling. And D.C. did indeed equalize just two minutes after the second ejection. Columbus dug in from there, though, and in epic fashion forced overtime, where Jeff Cunningham one-timed a John Harkes corner kick past United keeper Mike Ammann from the middle of the box in the 99th minute. That golden goal with a minute left in overtime, 32 minutes into a two-man disadvantage, capped the most improbable victory in Crew history and charted a remarkable course for the club that would see it go 12-4-4 in 20 games under Andrulis to finish 13-7-6.
Along the way, the Crew fashioned a nine-game unbeaten streak, going 7-0-2 between July 4 and Aug. 19, went unbeaten in its last 11 regular-season home games (7-0-4), matched its all-time high point total (45) in six fewer games and experienced a 13.3 percent rise in attendance (to 17,511 per game).
Individually, forward Jeff Cunningham had a superlative season, becoming the first player in Crew history to record double-figure totals in both goals (10) and assists (13) and setting a new club mark with an eight-game point streak, while playmaking midfielder John Wilmar Perez dished out a then-team-record and League-lead-tying 15 assists.
The return of midfielder Brian Maisonneuve was also a key factor in the Crew’s turnaround. After missing the entire 2000 season with a series of devastating ankle injuries and surgeries, Maisonneuve made a remarkable comeback in 2001, getting stronger and stronger as the season progressed and ultimately being named the MLS Player of the Month for August.
Like every other team in the League, the regular season ended abruptly for the Crew, when the final week was cancelled in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. That left Columbus two games shy of completing the 28-game season, which had been adopted for the first time in 2001.
The Crew entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and was drawn against the fifth- seeded San Jose Earthquakes, who sported an identical 13-7-6 record. Unfortunately for Andrulis’ troops, they ran into a team peaking at the right time and the Quakes used their 2 games to 0 (6 points to 0) series win as a springboard to their first MLS Cup title, which they won at Crew Stadium over the LA Galaxy in overtime.
At the conclusion of the season, Andrulis was rewarded with a two-year contract extension and General Manager Jim Smith was named the MLS Executive of the Year.
2002: Champions at last!
Major changes at the League level ushered in 2002. The MLS Board of Governors voted unanimously to contract by two teams on January 8, following a comprehensive strategic review of the League’s operations, and the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny ceased operations immediately. MLS returned to a 10-team, two-conference alignment, with the Crew reentering the Eastern Conference.
Those changes, made with the League’s long-term strength and stability in mind, followed the announcement on Dec. 6, 2001 that MLS investors committed to funding and operating the League for the next five years, through the 2006 season.
But for Crew fans, 2002 will go down in history as the year their beloved Black & Gold finally won a championship.
On October 24, the Crew defeated the newly crowned MLS Cup-champion LA Galaxy, 1-0, in the U.S. Open Cup final at Crew Stadium, to claim the prestigious piece of hardware. The U.S. Open Cup is the oldest soccer tournament in America.
Freddy Garcia’s 30th-minute goal and Jon Busch’s four-save shutout brought glory to Columbus. With the Open Cup title came a berth in the 2003 CONCACAF Champions Cup.
The Crew had advanced to the final in dramatic and improbable fashion, coming back from a two-goal deficit midway through the second half to defeat the K.C. Wizards 3-2 in overtime at Crew Stadium in the semifinals. Edson Buddle got Columbus on the board in the 76th minute and second-half substitute John Wilmar Perez scored the game-tying goal two minutes into second-half stoppage time, then banged in the winner 18 minutes into overtime.
Following an up-and-down 11-12-5 regular season, the Crew peaked at the right time, sweeping the defending-champion San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS Cup quarterfinals and advancing to the league semifinals for the fourth time in seven seasons, but for the first time since 1999. The Black & Gold ultimately fell in three games to New England.
Dazzling forward Jeff Cunningham established new career highs in goals (16) and points (37) and was named to the MLS Pepsi Best 11, while young midfielder Kyle Martino was a revelation, winning the league’s Rookie of the Year Award, a first for a Crew player.
While Brian McBride was in Korea/Japan helping the U.S. to an unexpected quarterfinal finish at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, more than 27,000 people flocked to Crew Stadium to view the televised action at “Cup Headquarters.”
More than 7,500 fans were on hand for the U.S.’s quarterfinal match vs. Germany and the success of “Cup Headquarters” garnered national media attention, including a feature in the June 11, edition of USA Today, live mentions by ESPN play-by-play announcers Jack Edwards and JP Dellacamera during different matches, and prominent mentions, accompanied by video footage, on the June 17 edition of ESPN2’s nightly news and highlight show “World Cup 2Night.” In addition to the huge crowd on June 21, the U.S.-Germany viewing party was attended by cameras from CBS’s “The Early Show,” which also sent a correspondent; ABC’s Good Morning America,” and NBC’s “Today Show,” both of which did live look-ins throughout the match.
The 2002 season also saw it’s share of milestones, as longtime Crew stalwarts Mark Dougherty, Todd Yeagley, Mike Lapper and Robert Warzycha all retired, while veteran forwards McBride and Dante Washington both reached the 50-goal plateau for their MLS careers.
2003: End of an Era
The 2003 season will be remembered, among other reasons, for being Brian McBride’s and Mike Clark’s last in Black & Gold.
On the field, an improbable succession of injuries and national team call-ups to key players turned an extremely promising start into a disappointing season. In the end, the Crew missed the playoffs for just the second time in club history.
That was in stark contrast to the optimistic opening weeks of the season, when the key offseason additions of World Cup veteran Frankie Hejduk and All-Star midfielder Ross Paule to an already formidable lineup appeared to be paying dividends. The Crew advanced to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup and was the talk of MLS in bolting to a 3-0-1 start in league play.
But, ultimately, the Crew’s “Big Four” of McBride, Hejduk, goalkeeper Jon Busch and midfielder Kyle Martino, were able to start just 16 of the team’s 30 games together. With them all in the starting lineup, the Crew went 7-4-5, but was 3-8-3 with any of them missing.
With forward Edson Buddle added to that equation, the “Big Four” plus Buddle only started 11 times together. The club’s record with those five was a gaudy 6-2-3, but just 4-10-5 without one or more of them in the lineup.
Another key player, forward Jeff Cunningham, battled through his own share of nagging injuries, but he did manage to reach a major milestone, becoming the 14th player in MLS history to reach the 50-goal plateau.
McBride provided the most dramatic moment of the season and it is sure to remain among the most lasting images he left with Crew fans. Sidelined with a respiratory virus in the must-win, next-to-last game of the season at D.C., McBride came of the bench in the 62nd minute and proceeded to score two goals, including the game-winner in the final minute of overtime, to give Columbus a dramatic 3-2 win and keep the club’s playoff hopes alive for another week.
During the offseason, McBride, the personification of the Crew since its inception, was transferred to Fulham F.C. of the English Premier League, while Clark, another Crew original, announced his retirement, signaling the end of one era and the dawn of a new one.
2004: The Streak, the Shield
The Crew took the field with a decidedly different look in 2004, after missing the playoffs in 2003, and the dramatically rebuilt roster put together a historic season. Following a slow start, the Crew did not lose a game after June 26 in compiling the longest unbeaten streak in MLS history.
The 18-game unbeaten run (8-0-10) lasted through the end of the regular season and culminated in the club’s first-ever Supporters Shield – awarded to the team with the top overall regular-season record – and first regular-season Eastern Conference title. The Crew finished 12-5-13, for 49 points, establishing new franchise records for most points and fewest losses in a season. Head Coach Greg Andrulis was named MLS Coach of the Year.
Unfortunately, the Crew’s good fortune ran out in the playoffs, when it dropped a two-game, total-goals Eastern Conference Semifinal series to New England, by a 2-1 aggregate score. Incredibly, Columbus had two penalty kicks saved in the return leg at Crew Stadium and it saw its finest season ever end early.
The offseason addition of veteran stalwarts Robin Fraser and Simon Elliott bolstered the lineup, as did the rapid emergence of rookies Chad Marshall and Chris Wingert. Fraser, who was named MLS Defender of the Year at the conclusion of the season, was instrumental in helping to develop Marshall, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft who went on to be named a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year honors.
The club’s future received another boost on July 22, when The Crew won the rights to highly sought after 17-year-old U.S. youth national team star Danny Szetela in a weighted lottery televised live on ESPN News.
Jon Busch continued his steady ascension to the ranks of elite MLS goalkeepers in 2004, earning a trip to his first All-Star Game and posting a 12-5-12 record and a 1.07 goals-against average. Fraser and Frankie Hejduk joined Busch at the All-Star Game. Edson Buddle led the way offensively, collecting 24 points, on 11 goals and two assists, including a club-record four-goal game on Sept. 18 against the MetroStars.
Like any other, the 2004 season was not without change. President/General Manager Jim Smith left the club in July to accept an executive position with the NFL Atlanta Falcons and Crew Stadium GM Mark McCullers succeeded him as General Manager. Jeff Cunningham’s 62nd and final goal in Black & Gold tied him with Brian McBride atop the club’s all-time list, before he was traded to Colorado during the offseason. And after the season, the last active player from the inaugural 1996 campaign, Brian Maisonneuve, announced his retirement after battling ankle injuries for years.
2005: Promising Season Derailed
As defending Supporters Shield winners with a largely unchanged roster, The Crew entered its 10th season with high hopes. But a series of debilitating injuries derailed those aspirations and by the time it was over, Head Coach Greg Andrulis had lost his job and the club finished out of the playoffs for just the third time in its history.
Despite the fact that important veterans Ross Paule (post-concussion syndrome/ retirement) and Duncan Oughton (knee surgery) had already been lost for the season during the preseason, the Crew opened the season by extending its MLS-record regular-season unbeaten streak to 19 games (9-0-10) with a 3-0 win over L.A.
But the Crew won just three more times over the course of the first half of the season, struggling to a 4-10-2 mark a the midway point, and Andrulis was relieved of his duties and replaced in an interim basis by Assistant Coach Robert Warzycha. In the meantime, All-Star goalkeeper Jon Busch was lost for the season on May 26, with a torn ACL in his right knee; the club’s most prominent offseason acquisition, forward Ante Razov, was traded to the MetroStars for John Wolyniec after wearing out his welcome; and talented young midfielder Danny Szetela spent weeks with the U.S. Under-20 National Team, as it prepared for and competed in the FIFA World Youth Championship in Holland.
After taking over on July 12, Warzycha guided the Crew to a very credible 7-6-3 record in the second half of the season and he accepted the club’s offer to stay on as Sigi Schmid’s top assistant in the wake of his successful stint.
Goalkeeper Jonny Walker, acquired from the MetroStars on July 1 to fill the void created by Busch’s injury, was a bright spot over the second half of the season, as were the performances of a number of developmental players – including Knox Cameron, Jamal Sutton and Eric Vasquez – given opportunities by Warzycha.
Following the season, changes were inevitable. Among the first of many were the retirement of Robin Fraser, one of the most respected and decorated defenders in League history, and the departure of midfielder Simon Elliott, who joined former Crew star Brian McBride with Fulham FC of the English Premier League after establishing a club record by playing every minute of every game and being named the team’s MVP.
2006: Season Begins, Ends with Promise
The 2006 Columbus Crew season was one of both frustration and promise. A season that had been eagerly anticipated following the offseason hiring of highly acclaimed head coach Sigi Schmid was ultimately derailed under the weight of an improbable string of injuries. But by the end of the year, it had provided a tantalizing glimpse of the future.
The Crew got out of the gates with a 4-4-2 record in its first 10 games, but by the end of the season had lost a remarkable 240 man-games to injury – an average of 7.5 per game – and the list of season-ending injuries included the club’s top two goalkeepers, Jon Busch and Jonny Walker, and All-Star Frankie Hejduk. Five different players started in goal over the course of the season.
That instability was ultimately reflected in a final record of 8-15-9, but the team never gave up on the season and closed with a 4-4-1 flourish in its last nine games, scoring 43 percent of its total goals in that span (13 of 30). Included in that run was a 1-1 draw versus eventual MLS Cup champion Houston and a 3-0 victory over runner-up New England.
The emergence of dynamic newcomers Ricardo Virtuoso, Jacob Thomas and Jason Garey, the reigning MAC Hermann Trophy winner, who all shined upon regaining full health and fitness, and the inspirational return of veteran Duncan Oughton from experimental knee surgery after a nearly-two year absence to provide an emotional lift and hard-nosed leadership were highlights.
Chilean Marcos Gonzalez, who would be named team MVP in his first season with the club, and Chad Marshall, 22, formed the backbone of a solid young defensive corps and the midseason acquisition of Joseph Ngwenya, who tied Garey for the team scoring lead with five goals and two assists, energized the attack.
Further fueling optimism for 2007 was the club’s first major player-personnel move of the offseason, in which the Crew acquired local product Danny O’Rourke from Toronto FC. O’Rourke, a veteran of two MLS seasons spent with S.J. and N.Y., was a Worthington native who captained Worthington Kilbourne to the 2000 Division I state championship and led Indiana University to the 2003 NCAA Men’s College Cup title. Both of those matches, incidentally, were played at Crew Stadium.
2007: Guille Joins Fold, Steady Progress Made
The Columbus Crew’s 2007 season was characterized by steady growth, through ups and downs, but will be remembered most as the one in which Argentine superstar Guillermo Barros Schelotto was signed.
Following a 1-4-5 start, two shrewd personnel moves by General Manager Mark McCullers and head coach Sigi Schmid, including one of the most significant in club history, got the season back on track.
On April 19, the Black & Gold signed Schelotto, one of the most successful and beloved players in the history of famed Argentine club Boca Juniors, to much fanfare. That deal, along with the acquisition of forward Alejandro Moreno via trade in early May, signaled a change in fortunes.
With the improving attack and return from injury of defender Chad Marshall and goalkeeper William Hesmer to bolster the backline, the Crew went on a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2) and lost only three times in 13 games between June 16 and September 2, vaulting it back into the playoff race and thrusting it directly into the fight for a top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
Tough times would return down the stretch, however, as injuries and general misfortune combined to spoil the club’s run at qualifying for the MLS playoffs. It did, however, finish strong with back-to-back 3-2 victories on the road over Eastern Conference leaders New England, an eventual MLS Cup finalist, and D.C. United, the Supporters’ Shield winner. The Crew’s final record of 9-11-10 represented a marked improvement over 2006. It also improved in virtually every offensive statistical category, including scoring, with a nine-goal improvement (39- 30) in two fewer games.
Schelotto finished the season ranked fourth in MLS in assists and was named the club’s MVP and to the MLS Best XI, while Moreno was the team’s leading goal scorer and the League leader in fouls suffered for the third consecutive season.
The return to form of perennial national team defender Frankie Hejduk from a serious knee injury that sidelined him for most of 2006 and the continued emergence of Eddie Gaven and newcomer Robbie Rogers were also bright spots during the campaign.
The biggest news off the field came on October 4, when the Crew and ICI Paints announced a landmark four-year partnership that positioned the Glidden brand as the club’s Presenting Partner, the most visible evidence of which is the prominent placement of the Glidden logo on the front of all Crew jerseys.
With a dynamic young nucleus returning to sport the club’s new look in year three of the Sigi Schmid era, the future looked bright.
2008: Magical Season Yields MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield
The Crew’s historic 2008 season was one of great excitement and fulfillment, as it earned its first MLS Cup Championship following a dominant regular season in which it went 17-7-6 and won the Supporters’ Shield with a club-record 57 points. The Black & Gold also set new club marks for wins and goals (50) in the post-shootout era since 2000. In addition, based on points earned in the standings per game played, the Crew’s 2008 regular season (1.90 ppg) ranked as the fifth most successful in MLS history.
Argentine icon Guillermo Barros Schelotto once again powered the Crew attack, collecting seven goals and 19 assists in 27 games, leading the League in assists by a wide margin and setting a new Crew record for assists in a season. He also was tied for second all-time for most assists in a season in League history. His extraordinary performance was recognized when he became the first Crew player to be named the MLS Most Valuable Player. Schelotto continued his brilliant play in the MLS Cup Playoffs, in which he registered six postseason assists, including a record three assists in MLS Cup 2008, and he was named MVP of the title match.
But Schelotto was not alone in his efforts, as young stars Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers had breakout seasons and head coach Sigi Schmid was named MLS Coach of the Year. The imposing Marshall was honored as the MLS Defender of the Year and selected to the MLS Best XI squad at season’s end. He made an impact at the offensive end, as well, notching career-high four goals during the regular season and two more in the playoffs – the game-winners in both the Eastern Conference Championship and MLS Cup.
Meanwhile, Rogers collected six goals and three assists while terrorizing Crew opponents up and down the left flank. Rogers’ stellar play was recognized throughout the soccer community as he was named to the MLS All-Star First XI, the U.S. Olympic squad that competed in Beijing, China and was a MLS Best XI selection at season’s end.
The 2008 season will also be remembered for the transformation of the atmosphere at Crew Stadium by the formation of the Nordecke in the stadium’s northeast corner. Following the construction of the permanent stage in the stadium’s north end, the Crew’s three primary supporter groups banded together in the northeast corner. The energy and excitement that emanated from the new location became one of the stories of the season – both locally and league-wide. Their drumbeats, chants and unbridled enthusiasm became a hallmark of Crew Stadium and Crew players and coaches repeatedly cited the Nordecke as a significant factor in the team’s success at home.
The dream season was capped with a 3-1 victory over New York in MLS Cup 2008 and the team returned to a raucous airport welcome and community celebration hosted by Gov. Ted Strickland at the Ohio Statehouse.
2009: Warzycha takes reins, leads club to second straight Shield, Champions League advancement
With new head coach Robert Warzycha at the helm, the Crew successfully navigated a hectic season by winning its second consecutive Supporters’ Shield and advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
After a sluggish start – the Crew finally got its first win in the eighth game vs. K.C. on May 9 to put the finishing touches on Crew Stadium’s 10th Anniversary celebration – the Black & Gold crested and sat atop the MLS standings for weeks, suffering only one loss between April 5 and Aug. 30.
Following a 2-1 setback at Dallas June 20, which ended a nine-game unbeaten streak, the Crew would not lose again for more than two months, compiling a 6-0-2 mark that included three consecutive shutouts heading into mid-August and Champions League play.
Despite numerous injuries (including Schelotto missing almost two months with a hamstring strain), national team call-ups and suspensions, Warzycha kept the team rolling by giving some of the role players opportunities.
United States President Barack Obama's welcomed of the Black & Gold to the White House on July 13, 2009 to celebrate the team's 2008 MLS Cup win.
A 2-0 home victory over the Puerto Rico Islanders on August 18 kicked off the Crew’s first foray into the CONCACAF Champions League, and the six-match group stage, and a 1-1 tie at Puerto Rico secured advancement into the competition’s quarterfinal round. In between, Columbus also became the first MLS club to win at Saprissa of Costa Rica’s Estadio Ricardo Saprissa (known as “The Monster’s Cave”).
The Crew extended its League-record unbeaten streak to 22 games on September 26, with a 2-0 win over L.A. and ultimately finished the season with a 13-7-10 record and League-best 49 points, to clinch the third Supporters’ Shield in club history.
Unfortunately, the Black & Gold ran into a red-hot Real Salt Lake squad – which went on to win MLS Cup – in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where its own dream of repeating as MLS Cup champions ended.
The Crew established a new club record for fewest goals allowed in a season, with 31, and Chad Marshall was named MLS Defender of the Year and Best XI for the second straight season.
2010: 50 points, CCL and USOC success
The Crew got off to a terrific start in 2010 and rolled to just the second 50-point season in club history, advancing to the U.S. Open Cup Final and CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals along the way. But a first-round playoff exit left the Black & Gold feeling unfulfilled.
The busy competitive season actually began prior to the regular season, with a 2009-10 Champions League Quarterfinal series vs. Mexican Club Toluca in March.
The Crew gave Toluca all it could handle, coming from behind to earn a 2-2 draw at home and falling just short on the road, with Toluca eking out a 3-2 victory. Unbeaten through its first eight regular-season games (6-0-2), the Crew finished 14-8-8 in League play, but was eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual MLS Cup- champion Colorado Rapids in a penalty kick shootout. The Black & Gold went 4-2-0 in the 2010-11 CCL Group Stage and 3-1-0 in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play, in which it fell to host Seattle, 2-1, before a record crowd of 31,311 in the Final.
The Crew was the only MLS club to qualify for the playoffs, while advancing to both the CCL Quarterfinals and Open Cup Final.
Goalkeeper William Hesmer started all 32 regular-season games and became the club’s all-time career leader in wins and shutouts, while Andy Gruenebaum was in net for all 10 CCL and Open Cup matches.
The Black & Gold was led offensively by Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s nine goals and eight assists, and big center back Chad Marshall once again anchored the defense. Both were MLS All-Star First XI selections and started the All-Star Game vs. Manchester United in July.
The Crew continued its dominance at home, crafting a 10-3-2 record at Crew Stadium during the regular season, bringing its home record over the last three seasons to 30-7-8.
The 2010 season will also be remembered as being the last in Black & Gold for club legends Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk and Duncan Oughton.
2011: Cunningham’s records, playoffs again
In a year when Jeff Cunningham returned to his original team and broke both the club’s and League’s all-time goal scoring records, the Crew qualified for the playoffs for the fourth straight season – joining Real Salt Lake as the only two teams to have accomplished that feat at the time. The four-straight postseason appearances also matched the club-record streak set from 1996-99.
Coincidentally, the Crew’s long competitive campaign began against Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals on the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League. After a scoreless draw in Columbus, RSL emerged victorious at Rio Tinto Stadium and ultimately advanced to the tournament’s finals.
In his first year as captain, two-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall shepherded a stingy backline that was bolstered by the offseason additions of Sebastian Miranda and Julius James. Eddie Gaven was a two-way lynchpin in the midfield and Andres Mendoza led the team in scoring with 13 goals.
After getting off to a strong start, which had the club in first place in the East with an 11-7-7 record in late August, the Crew cooled off down the stretch, finishing 13-13-8 (47 pts.), and fell to the Colorado Rapids, 1-0, in a Wild Card playoff match.
Cunningham’s return and historic achievements – moving into first place on the club’s (64) and league’s (134) all time lists – added considerable color to the campaign. After spending his first seven seasons in Black & Gold (1998-2004), he was back for his 14th.
History was also made in 2011 with the signing of the club’s first two Homegrown Players. Forward Aaron Horton of Lewis Center signed in May after one season at the University of Louisville, and goalkeeper Matt Lampson of Hilliard was inked in December after his junior season at Ohio State (from which he graduated that month).
Among highlights off the field were the creation of the club’s Circle of Honor and inaugural induction in July of Brian McBride – the Crew’s first superstar and icon – as well as the launch of a community pride campaign under the “Dare to be Massive” rallying cry. A key component of Dare to be Massive is “Goal 10K,” which emphasizes the importance of returning the club’s season- ticket base to 10,000.
2012: Crew miss playoffs, Higuaín brings hope for future
Despite early season injuries to centerpieces such as William Hesmer, Chad Marshall and Danny O'Rourke, the Crew managed to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt through the first half of the 2012 season. With Hesmer missing the entire season due to hip surgery, Andy Gruenebaum emerged as the Crew's new number one to lead the League in saves in his first season as a starter. Eddie Gaven, Justin Meram and Emilio Rentería carried the offensive load early on to help the Crew secure points in the wake of a number of injuries, including the Black & Gold's first-ever victory over Seattle Sounders FC on May 23 in Seattle.
The entire Crew organization faced an unprecedented tragedy on August 5 when rookie midfielder Kirk Urso suddenly passed away due to a congenital heart defect at the age of 22. The entire MLS community rallied to honor Urso and help support the Black & Gold through such a difficult time.
Fueled by Urso's memory and midseason acquisitions Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuaín, the Crew went on a seven-match unbeaten run to keep postseason hope alive through August and September. Unfortunately, late-season road woes kept the Black & Gold out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007 as the club fell a single point short of a postseason berth.
2012 was also a milestone year for a couple of Crew stalwarts as Chad Marshall became the club's all-time ironman, surpassing Mike Clark in career appearances (222), starts (217) and minutes played (18,943) during the season and Eddie Gaven became the youngest player in MLS history to play in 250 games (25 years, 257 days).
Designated Player Federico Higuaín was named 2012 MLS Newcomer of the Year after scoring five goals and recording seven assists in just 13 appearances since arriving in mid-August.
2013: End of an Era and Beginning of a New One
The 2013 season marked another year of significant change for the Black & Gold as the team looked to rebound from narrowly missing the postseason in 2012. Ultimately, the Crew was unable to secure a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season, but despite several changes, the Black & Gold made a MLS Cup Playoffs push towards the end of the campaign.
After opening the season with a commanding 3-0 win at Chivas USA on March 2 – the Crew’s earliest start date in its history – the Crew was dealt difficult injury blows as longtime stalwart Eddie Gaven tore his ACL in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match in May and newcomer and Brazilian defender Glauber suffered the same injury in the next round of the tournament in June.
April 27 marked a significant date in Crew Stadium history as the scoreboard on the south side of the stadium caught fire following an electrical issue just prior to the Crew-D.C. United match on April 27. The match – with its kickoff delayed less than an hour – turned out to be an exciting 3-0 victory for the Crew as zero injuries occurred in the fire. Crew Stadium had a special guest that evening attending his first match at the home of the Black & Gold, a man by the name of Anthony Precourt.
On July 30, The Columbus Crew and Hunt Sports Group announced that Precourt Sports Ventures, LLC acquired the operating rights to the Crew. Hunt Sports Group operated the Crew – Major League Soccer’s Charter Member – since 1996. Effective immediately, the Black & Gold became part of the privately held investment and management firm’s sports and entertainment business enterprise. Prior to the start of the 2014 campaign, the Crew announced that manufacturing was underway for new state-of-the-art Crew Stadium video boards, most notably on the main scoreboard on the facility’s south side. Installation of a Daktronics main and auxiliary video board on the scoreboard, as well as ribbon displays on the east and west sides of the seating bowl. The investments were part of several upgrades under new ownership.
With the Black & Gold sitting in eighth place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, eight points outside the fifth and final MLS Cup Playoffs position on Labor Day (September 2), the Crew parted ways with longtime Head Coach Robert Warzycha. With eight MLS regular-season matches remaining, Technical Director Brian Bliss became the Crew’s Interim Head Coach following six years in his previous role. Bliss secured his first victory just two days later on September 4 and went 4-4-0 in his tenure on the sidelines with the Black & Gold.
September also marked the fourth installment of “Dos a Cero” at Crew Stadium as the U.S. Men’s National Team went on to capture a 2-0 victory in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Mexico on September 10 as the Crew Stadium remained a spiritual home for the Stars and Stripes. The event gained national attention and was awarded an Experience Columbus EXPY as well as recognition from The Columbus Council on World Affairs (CCWA), which announced that the Crew was named International Organization of the Year.
Following the conclusion of the 2013 campaign, the Crew hired Gregg Berhalter as Sporting Director and Head Coach, the seventh Head Coach in club history. The former United States international, U.S. Men’s National Team veteran and Major League Soccer player joined the Black & Gold and also assumed the title of Sporting Director, overseeing all player personnel decisions following a club restructuring of its soccer operations. Berhalter became the club’s first Sporting Director, combining this role with his head coaching duties for the first time in Crew history. In a related restructuring move, Crew President Mark McCullers relinquished his duties as General Manager to focus primarily on the club’s business operations and to provide Berhalter the opportunity to implement his vision for the Crew’s soccer operations.
The final winds of change came in the offseason as the team parted ways with the remaining players from the 2008 MLS Cup Champion roster. Eddie Gaven retired following his injury, Chad Marshall and Andy Gruenebaum were traded to separate clubs in moves that helped the Crew build for the future and Danny O’Rourke was out of contract.
Instead, heading into 2014, the Crew saw a 2013 emergence of young midfielder Wil Trapp (U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Athlete of the Year), newcomer and leading-scorer Dominic Oduro and a strong first full season for playmaker and Designated Player Federico Higuain. The Crew led MLS with the highest year-over-year increase in attendance during the 2013 campaign.
A change in ownership, technical staff, roster and upgrades to Crew Stadium – 2013 certainly marked the beginning of a new era of Crew soccer.
The Black & Gold's 2013 calendar year ended with the optimism of new leaders assuming their roles and making their mark on the Crew. Investor-Operator and Chairman Anthony Precourt began his first full-season at the helm of the club, with Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter taking the reins of the club.
The Crew opened the 2014 campaign in exciting fashion, winning its first three matches for the first time in club history, including a dominating 3-0 performance at D.C. United in the season opener and an exhilarating 2-1 win at Seattle Sounders FC, capped-off by a Justin Meram stoppage-time curling winner.
The Black & Gold hit a rough patch from April through June, but persevered. At the time of the 2014 FIFA World Cup break, the club was 4-5-6 and remained in the thick of the MLS Cup Playoffs race. At the 2014 FIFA World Cup, defenders Giancarlo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis represented the Crew in spectacular fashion, with Gonzalez starting every match for Costa Rica en route to the Ticos' surprise run to the Quarterfinals of the tournament.
The Crew slowly and surely improved following the FIFA World Cup break, aided by breakout performances from players such as Ethan Finlay (11 goals, seven assists), Justin Meram (eight goals, four assists) and Tony Tchani, who partnered with Wil Trapp to form a powerful duo in central midfield. Additionally, Michael Parkhurst became the Crew's first All-Star representative since 2010, providing veteran leadership and defensive stability all season long.
On July 19, the Crew beat Montreal by a 2-1 final at home to spark a 10-3-2 run to close the regular season. This stretch included such victories as a 4-1 win over Western powerhouse LA, a 3-2 win at Philadelphia featuring the all-time Crew record for fastest three goals and biggest road comeback, and a 3-1 win at Red Bull Arena, a place where the Crew had won just once prior in the stadium's history. This powerful surge to close the campaign led to the Black & Gold finishing in third place in the Eastern Conference and avoiding the Knockout Round in the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs. On November 1, the Crew hosted its first home Playoff match since 2010, falling to the New England Revolution.
Off the field, the Crew announced sports industry veteran Andy Loughnane as its new President of Business Operations on August 16. On October 8, the Black & Gold announced at a downtown event the club's brand evolution to Columbus Crew SC, effective for the 2015 season. The team's brand and visual identity was revolutionized and unveiled at the special event, which was headlined by special guests MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman.
This season saw the overall direction of Berhalter's plan take shape. His carefully constructed staff featured former MLS standouts Josh Wolff and Pat Onstad as well as European coaching veteran Robert Maaskant. Joining from U.S. Soccer, Asher Mendelsohn became the Director of Soccer Operations, assisting with the off-field player personnel management of the club. Midseason, the Crew boss added Steve Tashjian from Everton FC as his High Performance Director, another symbol of his meticulous dedication on and off the pitch. The home victory against LA came against his former coach and mentor, Bruce Arena, sparking dominance that the Black & Gold needed down the stretch.
The combination of the club's on field success and off-field resurgence capped a successful full first year for Precourt and Berhalter. The team set the all-time attendance record and sellout record for a single season at Crew Stadium. Bolstered by the addition of Loughnane as well as 2015 player signings of Kei Kamara, Ben Swanson and Mohammed Saeid, the future is bright for Columbus Crew SC.
2015: Historic 20th season brings new badge, new stadium name, second Conference Championship and a return to MLS Cup
Columbus Crew SC’s 2015 campaign was marked by a juxtaposition of both evolution and stability. Both Investor-Operator and Chairman Anthony Precourt as well as Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter began their second full seasons with the club, continuing to implement their philosophies and tactics, both on- and off-the-field. As the trio’s presence further cemented Columbus Crew SC’s business and soccer identity, its brand identity completed its evolution with the on-field debut of the club’s new badge. Furthermore, ahead of the 2015 Major League Soccer season, under the new leadership of President of Business Operations Andy Loughnane, MAPFRE Insurance was announced as the club’s new stadium naming-rights partner, renaming America’s first soccer-specific facility as MAPFRE Stadium.
On the field, new signee Kei Kamara instantly gave Berhalter’s Crew SC a new attacking threat. Beginning his second stint with the team, Kamara scored his first goal of the season in the Opening Match at MAPFRE Stadium, helping the Black & Gold to a victory over Trillium Cup rivals Toronto FC. He notched a brace in the team’s fourth match at Vancouver – one of an eventual MLS-leading six on the season.
During a stretch of three home matches in four overall contests, beginning on April 18, Crew SC won all three home contests by a combined 9-3 scoreline. Kamara notched four goals in those three games, tying for the League lead in tallies at the time. He would finish the year tied for the League lead with 22 in total, a figure that represented the Black & Gold’s second-highest individual goal-scoring season ever.
Entering the team’s July 4 home clash against the New York Red Bulls, Crew SC found itself in sixth place. Following a 2-1 win over New York, the Black & Gold vaulted to second place in the standings and never relinquished a spot above the red line for the remainder of the campaign. Two weeks later, a 1-0 road victory at the Chicago Fire sparked an impressive 6-2-0 record for the Black & Gold away from home.
Coupled with Kamara’s MVP-like form (#KEI4MVP), Crew SC benefited from the continued breakout success of players such as Ethan Finlay (12 goals, 13 assists in 2015), the steady veteran presence of Captain Michael Parkhurst, and the integration of important midseason acquisitions such as defenders Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro, midfielder Cedrick Mabwati, and forward Jack McInerney. The Black & Gold closed the season on an overall 9-4-2 run to clinch the second seed in the Eastern Conference entering the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.
The postseason began with a match-up against the Montreal Impact and Didier Drogba, who entered the series having scored 11 goals in 11 regular-season contests. Following a 2-1 Montreal scoreline in the First Leg at Stade Saputo, Crew SC prevailed in a dramatic second leg that featured a late, series-tying goal by Finlay and an extra time winner by Kamara.
Crew SC moved on to face the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Championship, where in the First Leg, a goal nine seconds in by Justin Meram set the all-time MLS record for fastest postseason goal. The Black & Gold would never look back, adding a second goal in that First Leg before yet another dramatic Second Leg that saw Crew SC advance at Red Bull Arena, winning the Eastern Conference Championship for the second time in club history and the first since 2008.
The opponent in MLS Cup would be the Portland Timbers, and due to Crew SC’s higher regular-season finish, MAPFRE Stadium would host the final for just the second time ever and the first time ever involving the home Black & Gold. Although the Timbers would win the match on that day, there would be no denying the on- and off-field success that Crew SC attained in 2015; among them, the second-highest regular-season point total in club history and the record for most combined regular-season and postseason sellouts in one campaign. Additionally, Crew SC had three players on the 2015 AT&T MLS All-Star team (Finlay, Kamara and defender Waylon Francis) as well as two players on the end-of-season MLS Best XI (Finlay and Kamara). Kamara also captured the 2015 MLS Humanitarian of the Year Award, presented by Advocare.
Entering 2016, Crew SC made significant offseason moves to again position the club for an MLS Cup run, chief of which was a multi-year contract extension for Berhalter in addition to the signing of free agent defender Corey Ashe as well as a contract extension for Finlay. All signs remain pointing upward for the Black & Gold in 2016 and beyond as Precourt, Berhalter and Loughnane continue to mold the club.
2016: #ForColumbus Kits, New TV Deal, and a New Goalscorer
Crew SC’s 2016 season began filled with hope following the success of the 2015 season, which saw the club become Eastern Conference Champions and only narrowly miss on winning MLS Cup. Showing a commitment to its relationship with the community, Crew SC launched its #ForColumbus jerseys, inspired by and featuring the colors of Columbus’ city flag.
On the Front Office end, the Black & Gold announced a landmark television broadcast partnership on February 25. The deal made it possible to reach 100% of all Columbus households and large portions of all major metros in Ohio via a simulcast arrangement with The CW Columbus, FOX-28, ABC-6, Spectrum Sports, and Buckeye Broadband.
Over the course of the 2016 campaign, Crew SC suffered injuries to key players like midfielders Federico Higuain, Wil Trapp and defender Gaston Sauro, all starters during the 2015 MLS Cup Playoff run. Sauro suffered a knee injury in May, Higuain suffered from a hernia and had to undergo surgery, while Trapp was sidelined with a concussion. Despite missing some matches due to injury, Trapp earned his first All-Star nod in 2016, as he was named to the AT&T MLS All-Star Team that took on English Premier League side Arsenal. Per Opta, Trapp was one of only two players to successfully complete over 1,600 passes (1,734) during the 2016 MLS regular season. Out of the 93 MLS players to attempt at least 1,000 passes during the same season, Trapp ranked second in passing accuracy with a rate of 88.06%.
Justin Meram finished the season with a career-best five goals and 13 assists in 33 appearances (31 starts). Meram would go on to make his 150th appearance for the club en route to winning Crew SC’s Most Valuable Player award.
Another player who made a large impact on the Black & Gold was forward Ola Kamara, whose 16 goals in 24 appearances (20 starts) led the team in 2016. Additionally, the Norwegian player became the first player to score a hat-trick for Crew SC in over a decade when he scored three goals against Real Salt Lake at MAPFRE Stadium in a 4-3 win on May 28, 2016. The last player to have scored a hat trick for Crew SC was Edson Buddle back on September 18, 2004 during a 4-2 victory over the New York Red Bulls. With the hat trick, Kamara became one of only six players to have achieved this feat for the club.
Despite not making the playoffs, Crew SC shattered two club records in 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium thanks to its supporters: New all-time highs were reached for sellouts and MAPFRE Stadium attendance in a single season. Additionally, Justin Meram won the MLS Etihad Airways Player of the Month Award for October.
Ahead of the 2017 season, the Black & Gold revamped its roster with the addition of players like defender Jonathan Mensah, who became a second Designated Player on the roster entering the 2017 campaign. Other additions included Ghanaian midfielder Mohammed Abu and the return of Josh Williams, a former Crew SC player and Ohio native as well as defender Jukka Raitala.
2017: A Trip to Brazil, a New Kit Partner and the Longest Home-Winning Streak in A Season
Following a 2016 season in which the club missed out on the postseason, 2017 started off with the addition of defender Jonathan Mensah to the club on January 3. Mensah, a Ghanaian two-time World Cup veteran, became the fifth Designated Player in Crew SC history and joined Federico Higuain as one of two Designated Players on the roster.
Soon after, the Black & Gold headed to South America as part of their preseason camp, spending two-and-a-half weeks in the mountains of Sao Paulo, Brazil. In addition to helping the players focus solely on soccer ahead of the 2017 MLS season, the trip to Brazil resulted in the signing of Artur – a Sao Paulo FC player – on loan for the year.
Back in Columbus, the Black & Gold Front Office unveiled luxury automaker Acura as the Official Columbus Crew SC Jersey Partner and the Official Automotive Partner of Columbus Crew SC on February 24. The three-year deal meant that the Acura logo would be displayed on Crew SC’s jersey and marked the largest annual commercial transaction in club history.
On August 7, the Black & Gold further strengthened its roster with the acquisition of Designated Player Pedro Santos. Santos, a Portuguese midfielder, had previously played for SC Braga of Portugal’s First Division. His addition to Crew SC’s squad marked the first time that the Black & Gold had three Designated players at the same time.
While new players joined Crew SC in 2017, familiar faces were also having an impact. Both Justin Meram and Ola Kamara scored a career-high number of goals during the regular season, with Meram tallying 13 while Kamara registered 18. Similarly, Justin Meram recorded his first career hat trick, scoring all of Crew SC’s goals in a 3-2 road victory over the Montreal Impact on May 13. In addition to his career-high number of goals, Ola Kamara managed to score against 15 different opponents during the regular season, tying Mike Magee's MLS record of most teams scored against in a single regular season.
Another Black & Gold player who had a banner year was Federico Higuain. Despite missing much of 2016 due to injury, Higuain had one of his most productive years as he provided 14 regular-season assists – an MLS career-high – in addition to scoring nine regular-season goals. The Argentine midfielder also became one of only seven players in Crew SC history to register three assists in a single match, as he provided all three assists in a 3-2 home victory over the New York Red Bulls on September 23. For his accolades on the field, Higuain earned Crew SC’s Acura Most Valuable Player award.
2017 saw Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter lead the Black & Gold to the MLS Cup Playoffs for the third time in four seasons. Along the way, Crew SC set a club record for most regular-season wins at home in a season, as the club finished the regular season with a record of 13-3-2 to surpass its previous record of 11 home victories, which it had achieved on four previous seasons: 1997, 1998, 2008 and 2012. Crew SC also set a new club record for most points at home with 38, two more points than the 36 points it earned at home in 2012.
During the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Knockout Round, the Black & Gold traveled to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to face Atlanta United FC. Crew SC managed to keep Atlanta United from scoring and took the hosts into extra time and later penalty kicks, led by goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who recorded eight saves during 120 minutes of play. During the penalty kick shootout, Steffen made two saves, helping the Black & Gold advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Crew SC faced New York City FC, defeating NYCFC 4-1 at home before losing 2-0 at Yankee Stadium but advancing to the Eastern Conference Championship on a 4-3 aggregate score. During the First Leg of the Eastern Conference Championship, Crew SC held the most dangerous offense during the MLS regular-season to a 0-0 score line. In the Second Leg, the Black & Gold lost 1-0 to Toronto FC – the eventual MLS Cup Champions -- in only the slimmest of margins.
Heading into the 2018 season, the Black & Gold continued to strengthen its roster with the permanent transfer of Brazilian midfielder Artur from Sao Paulo FC.