The 2021 Columbus Crew schedule is out, giving fans the exact dates for Crew matches in its quest to defend the MLS Cup title. The season will begin on April 18 at historic Crew Stadium when the Black & Gold host the Philadelphia Union on Fox Sports 1. The other 33 games on the docket from mid-April to early-November offer interesting trends, landmark occasions and potential challenges for the MLS Cup champions for 2021.
Let’s break down this year’s schedule
32 games against the East, 2 against the West
For the second consecutive season, the MLS schedule is conference-heavy with each team playing 32 of its 34 regular season matches against opponents from the same conference. The COVID-19 pandemic caused last year’s schedule to branch off to nearly exclusively conference games to minimize travel. The 2021 schedule is designed to minimize travel as well, which offers its pros and cons.
One positive is the league prioritizing safety as the pandemic continues during the course of the year. Even with the expectation that a high volume of people in the United States and Canada will be vaccinated during 2021, the lasting effects of vaccines and new strains of COVID-19 are unknown.
From a soccer perspective, the Crew doesn’t have to play the likes of LAFC, the Portland Timbers, and other top Western Conference teams. More games against lower-level East squads should mean more points for Columbus.
On the other hand, COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be very effective for short-term immunity and MLS teams have protocols to keep players safe. So why minimize travel and not offer more inter-conference play?
The Crew’s two Western Conference opponents are Austin FC and the Seattle Sounders, which isn’t exactly “minimizing travel.” It’s a shame the team won’t face tests like Minnesota United or Sporting Kansas City, which are much closer trips. The schedule is similar to the old Major League Baseball format with little imagination in opposition and could cause inflation of points.
Dates to circle
Every game in an MLS season is important but a handful for the Crew in 2021 will be circled on the calendars. After the home opener against Philadelphia, a bittersweet match will be on June 19 when Columbus plays its final MLS match at historic Crew Stadium against the Chicago Fire.
The end of June offers a match many, many Black & Gold fans have waited for for three years. Columbus will travel to Q2 Stadium and take on Austin FC on June 27. Austin owner and former Crew investor/operator Anthony Precourt attempted to move the Black & Gold from Columbus.
A few days after that game will be a match that will live in Black & Gold history. July 3 will be the first match at New Crew Stadium in downtown Columbus against the New England Revolution. These two original MLS sides met in the first match at historic Crew Stadium in 1999. Pretty cool deja vu for the weekend of the Fourth of July.
Late August will feature two home matches back-to-back that many fans will look forward to. Aug. 21 will be the rematch of the 2020 MLS Cup Final between the Crew and the Sounders. Six days later, the Hell is Real Derby for the first time at New Crew Stadium when FC Cincinnati comes to town. The first Hell is Real Derby will be on July 7 at West End Stadium, Cincy’s new home.
On Sept. 11 Columbus plays its first-ever match against Inter Miami in Florida. Miami is a roster full of former European stars like Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi and Kieran Gibbs. Inter’s is coached by former English Premier League winner Phil Neville and owned by soccer legend David Beckham. Miami will play in Columbus on Oct. 16, which could mark the return of former Crew superstar Federico Higuain.
6 road games in the first 10 matches
One disappointing aspect of the Crew’s title-winning season in 2020 was the fact the team didn’t earn a single true road victory. It’s only winning away from historic Crew Stadium last season were at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida. The Black & Gold have a chance to right those wrongs early with six road matches in its first 10 matches while the team waits for the new stadium to open.
Head coach Caleb Porter stated that if the Crew had more road games last season, the team would have gotten those points. Seventeen are on the horizon and among those first six are some true tests. The first road match is against CF Montreal on May 1 with that match being played in Miami due to COVID-19 travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada.
After that game, Columbus has three consecutive road matches against Toronto FC on May 12 in Orlando, at the Revolution four days later and a trip to New York City FC on May 22. The Black & Gold close out June at Philadelphia and at Austin to end its longest road stretch of the season. Getting points in these games is crucial for another MLS Cup run.
The Crew on national television
Being the MLS Cup champion comes with its perks. The Crew will have seven matches broadcast on national television this season with the first being the opening game against the Union. That opener will be on FOX Sports 1 and be one of three matches broadcast on the FOX networks.
Both of Columbus’ matches against Western Conference opposition will be broadcast by FOX. The road match against Austin on June 27 will also be on FS1 while the MLS Cup Final rematch against the Sounders at New Crew Stadium will be on FOX on Aug. 21. The Seattle rematch will be the second and last Crew game on a major network with the first one taking place on July 24 when the Black & Gold travel to Atlanta United on ABC.
Three matches will be on ESPN, with the first taking place on May 16 at Gillette Stadium against New England on ESPN2. Columbus’ second encounter with the Revolution, also the first-ever match at New Crew Stadium, will be on ESPN on July 3. And as expected, the Hell is Real Derby game in Columbus against FC Cincinnati will be on ESPN on Aug. 27.
National attention is another worthy prize for MLS champions.
Intermingling of competitions
The Crew isn’t just playing MLS matches this season and its players also will have some international matches to suit up for. Should the Black & Gold advance to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, the first week of May will be incredibly congested.
Late April would be the first leg of the quarterfinals and be followed shortly with Columbus’ first road match against Montreal on May 1. A few days after that, the second Champions League quarterfinal leg and a home match against D.C. United on May 8. Luckily, the only other time this type of schedule could occur is August should the Black & Gold advance to the semifinals of the CCL.
The U.S. Open Cup will take place in May and June and with only eight MLS teams competing, we won’t go into the schedule congestion right here. It is worth pointing out a big break in the action from May 29 to June 19 for the international break and Open Cup play.
Speaking of internationals, multiple Crew players are poised to be called up to play for their countries throughout the season. Competitions include FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the Gold Cup, the Olympics and more. The good news is the schedule has big pauses for international breaks in June, July, October and most likely November before the MLS Cup playoffs.