One lingering question about the 2021 season was answered on Wednesday when the Columbus Crew discovered it will play Real Esteli in Nicaragua in early April for its first game of the new year. The other lingering question about 2021 that still remains is if fans will be able to attend matches?
This is something that, like many things were in 2020 and to start this new year, still seems to be up in the air. Speaking on Wednesday after the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 draw, Crew head coach Caleb Porter remarked on that question.
“We don’t know yet, obviously,” he said. “Things are still fluid. We’ll do, like last year, what’s safe. We’ll follow the advice of the league and our medical experts and certainly our government, what they say.”
The 2020 season began for the Crew with a full house on hand at historic Crew Stadium on March 1 to see the Black & Gold defeat New York City FC 1-0. A week and a half later, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic began to shut down sports across the United States and raised questions about fan attendance in the future.
Unlike other teams in this league and ones across the world, the MLS Cup champions were lucky enough to have fans attend a majority of the team’s matches over the course of the 2020 season, once games returned to home markets, albeit in small pockets. The Aug. 20 return match in Columbus against the Chicago Fire was the only game to have no supporters in attendance. Every other home match for the Crew had either between 100 and 200 guests of the team or the 1,500 ticketed fans as allowed by the state of Ohio. All fans in attendance throughout last season had to wear a mask at all times, stay socially distanced and get a temperature check before entering the stadium.
“Last year we were obviously a club that was able to have some fans, even celebrate an MLS Cup championship, winning that home,” continued Porter. “So we were able to have some fans. That was a nice thing I know for the players. Can we have more? Are we going to have less? We don’t know yet.”
The 2020 MLS Cup Final didn’t announce an official attendance marker but an estimated 4,000-6,000 people were inside MAPFRE Stadium, as it what known then, to see the Crew beat the Sounders 3-0 and hoist the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected American sports for nearly a year now and it seems more and more unlikely that even 50 percent capacity will be allowed to start the 2021 season.
“Obviously it just depends on what the league says, what our government says and what our medical experts tell us,” Porter said. “We’ll follow their guidance. But we’re very optimistic that yes, we will, at the very least have, to start the season, some fans.”
In all likelihood, the three months' worth of matches to send off historic Crew Stadium will have fans in attendance at less than 50 percent capacity due to the current state of the pandemic. Daily case numbers are still in thousands and could remain so going into April as the vaccine rollout continues. Despite that, it is likely fans will be able to see the final matches at the country’s first professional soccer-specific stadium. Whether the final match can have the stadium nearly full of fans is more of a question.
The other question is what kind of attendance capacity will be allowed when the new Columbus Crew Stadium opens in downtown this July. The only thing to claim confidently is fans in attendance will have to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines. It’s harder to look into the future and say if 50 percent or 75 percent capacity will be allowed for the opening of the new stadium. Based on the expectation of vaccine rollout, it’s possible to project the Crew having more than 10,000 fans at the opening game. In reality, there is not enough information to accurately answer these questions.
The Crew opens the 2021 season between April 6-8 against Real Esteli in Nicaragua for the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. The Black & Gold’s first home match at historic Crew Stadium will be between April 13-15 against Esteli in the second leg.