There has been little normal about the 2020 Major League Soccer season for Columbus Crew SC. After opening the year at home against New York City FC in early March, the Crew faced a week of uncertainty about whether the team’s match away to the Seattle Sounders in Week 2 would take place due to COVID-19 exposure in the area. It did, but the next week the MLS season was postponed because of the virus.
The players and coaches were isolated at their homes and had to train on their own before slowly being allowed to return to the team’s practice facility for individual, group and then full team practice.
It took four months but the Black & Gold got back on the field, taking part in the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida. While having games regularly was a reminder of what normal felt like, living in Disney World hotels and playing on a youth fields at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports was not what any MLS player is accustomed to.
Since returning to Columbus after falling in a penalty kick shootout to Minnesota United in the tournament’s Round of 16 in late July, the Crew spent the last three weeks back home with their families. While the group was training, there were no meaningful games at the end of each week, no carrot on the stick.
“We approached it pretty similar to how we approached the three weeks leading into Orlando,” head coach Caleb Porter said of this time period, “where we trained four days and then did an intrasquad scrimmage. And we gave them, after Orlando, four days off, and then we had three weeks leading into the first game. So we patterned basically every week like this game week where we had a four-day lead in leading into a Thursday match.”
In a sense, this was like another mini-preseason. The team had to stay fit and be ready, knowing games would come, but practice and scrimmages were the only way to get the competitive juices flowing on the field.
When MLS announced its plan for Phase 1 of return to play and the next six games of each teams’ schedule, it finally gave the Black & Gold that date to look forward to and build the team’s training towards.
“We know there is a game ahead and scheduled for us to play,” midfielder Artur said on Tuesday. “For me, the week before the game feels like we’ve got to be more concentrated, the training’s different, we’re preparing to play against opponents. So we’ve got to make our style of play to the opponent. So for me, it feels different.
“Also, the will to play, the desire to play, grows a little more. So I think it’s different when we don’t have a game, we don’t have a schedule, we don’t know when we’re going to play. Knowing that we’re going to play this week makes it different.”
On Thursday, the Crew resumes the 2020 MLS season, finally back at home, welcoming Eastern Conference rivals Chicago Fire to MAPFRE Stadium.
In a year no one saw coming, with strange situations, the team is beginning to settle into a more typical routine.
“It’s starting to feel much more normal,” forward Gyasi Zardes said. “As the days get closer to game time, it’s starting to feel like a normal season game like it did before COVID-19 hit. So I’m really looking forward to being able to play at MAPFRE Stadium and I can’t wait.”
But even a return to the familiar field at MAPFRE Stadium won’t be normal. In addition to the construction site on the stadium’s west side — as it is slowly converted into what will be the Crew’s new performance center — the Black & Gold will take the field against the Fire with no fans in the stands.
While that has become commonplace for sports returning to play around the world over the last few months, and Columbus experienced games with no fans in Orlando, this will be different. The team, which relies heavily on the cheering from its Nordecke supporters groups, will not have that typical backing coming from the northeast corner of the stadium.
Instead, MAPFRE Stadium will pump in crowd noise, something the Black & Gold experienced for the first time in last Thursday’s 80-minute intrasquad scrimmage.
“(It) was amazing,” Zardes said of being back at MAPFRE Stadium for the first time in months. “We haven’t played there in a long time, so just to get to the pitch. And we added the crowd noise in too just to get a feel of what that’s going to be like.
“Obviously having the fans there is much better. I feel like, especially for the home team, it kind of gets the atmosphere going. It sets the mood when the fans are cheering, chanting during warmups and as soon as kickoff hits. The crowd noise, whenever you get close to goal and you have an opportunity, you have the crowd (yell), so it’s kind of getting a little feel. But it’s obviously not the same.
Artur agrees: “For me, it was okay to hear that. It’s better than just a quiet place. It’s not the environment we’re used to when we’re in the stadium. We’re used to the noise, the fans. For me, I felt it was good. If we don’t have fans, that noise makes the feeling a little bit more normal instead of just a quiet place. For me, it was a nice experience.”
The 2020 MLS season is one that will certainly be remembered, likely not for the exciting games or major signings but rather the unique nature of the year and how the teams navigated it. From the decision to delay the season in March to the (hopefully) one-off MLS is Back Tournament, nothing has felt normal.
But the Crew has handled the year well and currently sits at the top of the Eastern Conference and in first place in the race for the Supporter’s Shield. With play beginning at home on Thursday, and some normalcy restored, the Black & Gold hope to build on what they started and finish out the season strong.
“The feeling is different just because you know there is a real game and you tend to get five percent, 10 percent more energy, buzz, excitement,” Porter said. “Those are good emotions leading into a real game. And I think the players are excited that our 13 points are going to continue to hopefully collect and grow into something toward the end of the year, toward our ultimate goal.”