COLUMBUS — Jairo Alza walks across Nationwide Boulevard and enters the construction site where the skeletal form of the new Columbus Crew SC stadium takes shape before his eyes and the soundtrack of progress plays in his ears.
There’s a constant beeping of heavy machinery in motion. The roar of boom cranes lifting steel beams. The whir of concrete surface finishers smoothing the West End patio where fans one day will mingle and purchase concessions.
But on a sun-drenched July morning, the most powerful tool in the yard is the imagination of the 33-year-old Peruvian immigrant, who’s helping build the future of Columbus soccer and a monument to his lifelong love of the game.
“From where we are standing on the west side of the stadium, you will have a great view of the field with the downtown in the background,” said Alza outfitted in a white hardhat and a black Crew jersey worn beneath a bright yellow safety vest.
Alza is a Turner Construction Company project engineer in charge of budget management. He’s on site almost every day speaking with field contractors and superintendents to answer questions, get updates and facilitate needs associated with building the $300 million venue. There’s lots of pressure involved in delivering a state-of-the-art facility on time and without cost overruns.
There’s also an enormous amount of pride.
“Where we are walking right now is where the locker rooms will be,” Alza said, gesturing with his hands. “And see that beam right there? That was the first steel beam installed. You can see the signature of (Crew president and general manager) Tim Bezbatchenko on it.”
As he exits the site, Alza asks a visitor to turn around and envision the stadium’s main East End entrance. It’s nothing more than a pile of dirt and gravel. In his eyes, however, you can almost picture Alza watching fans pour into the venue for the first time next July.
Talk to anyone who’s had a hand in building an arena or stadium and you will hear the satisfaction in their voices. Every project has value, but office towers and shopping malls aren’t where communal memories are made. They aren’t theaters of dreams.
For an employee who shows up to work in “Saved The Crew” socks, the construction of a new stadium is deeply personal. Alza is the biggest soccer fan among the hundreds on the job. He’s a former Ohio State student who found a connection to his native land in the stands and parking lots of MAPFRE Stadium. A supporter who attended gatherings to keep the Crew in Columbus when it looked destined for relocation to Austin.
He isn’t building a 20,000-seat venue. He’s building a home for his soccer-loving brethren, taking “Glory To Columbus” from words to actions.
“It’s like a dream come true for Jairo to be involved in this,” Turner project manager Dave Brown said. “Every day, he brings so much energy to our team.”
Lexi Roman grew up in Columbus. She became a sports fan through her father and their trips to Clippers’ games. Soccer held little interest in her life until 2011 when she met a passionate OSU graduate student living next door in a duplex. Lexi was studying to become an elementary school teacher. Alza was completing his masters in civil engineering.
She listened to Alza tell her stories about his youth in Trujillo, Peru. How he played soccer for his high school team. How kids would kick a plastic bottle around a makeshift pitch when a ball wasn’t available. How they would use backpacks for goals. She learned of his love for FC Barcelona and Club Alianza Lima in Peru.
Alza moved from South America to Cincinnati at age 16 to join other family members who already resided in Ohio. His father, Sixto, established himself in the restaurant business. Alza enjoyed his new environment, but yearned for the soccer culture he left behind in Peru.
In 2008, he found a bridge between his old and new worlds.
He started buying OSU student discount tickets for Crew games. He settled into the Nordecke and learned the chants. The young man who adored Ronaldinho and Claudio Pizarro developed new heroes: Alejandro Moreno, Frankie Hejduk, Guillermo Barros Schelloto. They produced back-to-back MLS Supporters’ Shield trophies and a 2008 MLS Cup title.
For Alza, it was a little slice of home off Hudson Street.
When it came time for him to write his master’s thesis he chose a Crew-related topic: How to bring solar power to MAPFRE Stadium.
“Soccer is more than a game to him,” said Lexi, who married Alza in 2013. “So many of his memories are tied to it. I got into soccer because it brings him so much joy and it brings me joy being around him watching it.”
Alza transitioned from Crew fan to Crew intern while still in college. Through a connection in the franchise’s Hispanic outreach department, he worked as a liaison for the La Turbina Amarilla supporter’s group. He also assisted in the Spanish radio booth during games, taking care of the equipment.
In 2010, Alza was at his apartment watching a World Cup game when he received a phone call from the Crew. The club’s Spanish-speaking public address announcer could not work that night. Would he be interested in subbing?
“I was super nervous at first,” Alza recalled. “But nobody could see it was me so I started to relax and put some oomph into it. I would over-pronounce the letters in the names to make the Spanish vivid. After the game, my boss said, ‘Dude, they loved you. They would like for you to do it for the rest of the season.’”
Alza became the full-time Spanish public address announcer for four seasons. He eventually stepped away from the role to focus on his job and family.
Life was good. His career in civil engineering was gaining traction. He and Lexi did some traveling. While no longer working for the Crew, he was secure in the knowledge the team would always be part of his life in Columbus.
Then, one day in October 2017, Alza was driving his car, listening to Columbus sports talk radio, when he heard the shocking news.
Nothing in his American experience had prepared Alza for the possibility of the Crew leaving town. He knew MAPFRE Stadium was old and that then-owner Anthony Precourt had been pushing civic leaders to build him a new one.
But the concept of franchise relocation was foreign to the Peruvian.
“Back home there would never be a fear of a team moving,” Alza said. “Your team could get relegated to a lower league, but it would still be playing in the same city. I couldn’t get my mind around the concept of a team you rooted for possibly leaving.
“When I first heard the news, I almost teared up.”
Where would Alza and Lexi spend their summer nights? Where would their sons, Roman, 3, and Milo, 1, gain an understanding for the rhythm and tension of the game — the spontaneous release of joy for a goal or well-timed challenge?
Cincinnati was on the verge of MLS entry. Alza already had been anticipating an extended family rivalry in the Hell Is Real derby.
As city officials grappled with Precourt, Alza joined the community effort to keep the team in Columbus. He attended Save The Crew events when time permitted and did his small part to steer the conversation in a positive direction.
Alza also made as many home games as possible in 2018 knowing it could be the team’s last in the city.
“Jairo felt betrayed,” Lexi said. “The thought of losing something that was such a big part of his life, something that brought him so much joy, definitely was heartbreaking.”
A year later, a new ownership group led by team doctor Pete Edwards and Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam announced its intention to buy the franchise with the promise of building a downtown stadium. A compromise was reached. The Crew would stay put and the MLS would award Precourt an Austin-based expansion team.
Alza was amazed by the grassroots efforts of Morgan Hughes and others to mobilize support and keep the fight in the public eye until the money men could be found.
“The Save The Crew movement was awesome,” he said. “Just seeing a group of fans saving the team was something. That movement helped the casual fan get more involved. There was lots of synergy. It was pretty cool to see the city come together.”
As plans for a new stadium emerged, Alza’s mind began to race. He had been working as a project manager for a local general contractor. Once Turner and joint venture partner Smoot Construction were awarded the bid, Alza inquired about joining the team.
Turner Construction hired him in April 2019. A week before his start date, Alza had one question for his new bosses: Was there a chance he could be involved in the stadium project?
Each work station inside the TurnerSmoot field office has a laminated sheet of paper with the employee’s name and favorite number superimposed on the back of a yellow Crew jersey. There’s a countdown clock for stadium completion that hangs from a wall and four conference areas bearing soccer-inspired names — the Hejduk room, the #Crew96 room, the Black and Gold room, the Saved the Crew room.
These are examples of team building courtesy of TurnerSmoot’s most ardent Crew supporter.
“The idea was to bring the soccer spirit to everybody working here,” Alza said.
When the Crew season opened March 1, Alza began weekly meetings with a brief recap of the team’s play. Those reviews were quickly halted by the global pandemic.
As much of Columbus entered lockdown, construction on the stadium continued after a brief halt to ensure new worker-safety rules were followed. In an eerily quiet downtown, W. Nationwide Boulevard still rumbled and rattled with activity.
While COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported at stadium projects in Alabama, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the TurnerSmoot endeavor has avoided serious problems to date, Alza said.
The new stadium, where ground was broken in October 2019, remains on course for its scheduled opening next July.
“It was a concern, but it’s been taken very seriously from top to bottom,” Alza said. “We’ve had some challenges, but we’ve been able to overcome them.”
Added project manager Brown: “We haven’t skipped a beat. We have all been able to stay connected. I can’t say that for all projects, but this one was able to keep going.”
The weekly Crew reviews have resumed at the start of meetings. The reports are encouraging with the team having won all three of its round-robin matches in the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando before getting eliminated by Minnesota United on penalty kicks Tuesday in the knockout round.
Alza is thrilled to be watching soccer again. He can’t help looking forward to next season and the opening of the new stadium. Alza and his father speak on an almost daily basis. Years ago, Sixto had his son memorize the list of World Cup winners. Now, he recites to his father the progress being made at the construction site.
“It’s an experience I don’t know if I will ever top,” Alza said. “I tell people I’m working on the coolest project that I will ever work on for the rest of my life.”
Next summer, three generations of Alzas will watch Crew games together when Sixto visits from Cincinnati. Roman and Milo will create their own heroes and memories. The names of Hejduk, Schelloto and Moreno replaced by Zardes, Nagbe and Zelarayan.
The boys will cheer alongside their father and grandfather and listen to the stories about kicking plastic water bottles between backpacks. It’s a family passion for a sport grown in Peru and replanted in Central Ohio.
“I can’t wait to bring my wife and kids to the games here and point out things like, ‘Hey, I remember when we put this first piece of steel here.’” Alza said. “I will be able to tell them cool things about the stadium that the general public is not privy to.
“I just get excited thinking about those things, about fans being inside the stadium. I am ready to lose my voice again in the Nordecke.”