It was March 5, 2020, the last time I visited the Columbus Crew training facility. Little did I know that day, as I went through my nearly-daily 20ish-minute drive to Obetz, Ohio, the small village southeast of Columbus where the Crew practice, that it would be the last time in over a year that I would be there.
I came home and it was later that evening that Major League Soccer announced it was monitoring that weekend’s Crew match at the Seattle Sounders two days later for the Coronavirus after a positive test was traced back to what was then CenturyLink Field. At that point, I was very unfamiliar with the Coronavirus, or COVID-19. In the time since, I learned quite a bit about the virus during the pandemic.
Following the Black & Gold’s 1-1 draw in Seattle, the MLS season was put on pause, not to be restarted until mid-July with the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida. Throughout the rest of the Crew’s MLS Cup-winning 2020 campaign, interviews were held over Zoom and no media members were permitted to attend training. The closest I got to seeing Caleb Porter or any of the Columbus players, people I saw more than my own family during the MLS season, in-person was from the top of the stage of then-MAPFRE Stadium where the Crew set up an outdoor press box for the rest of the year. No conversations. Maybe the occasional wave from afar.
Recently, life has returned to some level of normalcy, but still the strangeness of being a media member covering the Black & Gold continued with the Zoom calls and no actual contact with the team. That all changed this week.
On Wednesday, the Crew allowed media members to return to Obetz and the facility to watch a portion of practice. The Black & Gold’s broadcast team, along with Columbus Dispatch beat writer Jacob Myers, Justin Holbrock from NBC4 and Clay Hall from WSYX all joined me in this return.
It was great to be back and watching the team go through their paces, even if the open portion of practice was mostly warmup drills. It felt normal to tweet out pictures and videos of the team again and see some of the players I had not seen in a while, or some I hadn’t seen at all — I realized the last time I saw Kevin Molino in-person was in July of 2016 when he played at historic Crew Stadium for Orlando City SC.
Being back and seeing the players get put through their warmup paces by fitness coach Federico Pizzuto and hearing Porter bark instructions to his players during a drill used to be normal, a near-daily occurrence. Saying hello to the Crew’s president and general manger Tim Bezbatchenko and director of scouting Neil McGuiness as they walked in to watch practice happened regularly. On Wednesday, it was exciting because it had been 440 days since I last did these things.
The 2020 season was hard to cover for a number of reasons, but one of them was not being at training. It was hard to know who might be in and might be out of the lineup because I didn’t get to see practice. No one who covered the team knew to ask about injuries to a player until after games because we had no frame of reference. It was difficult to answer questions about the team’s approach to certain matches or opponents because we didn’t get the normal time to see Columbus prepare.
To start the season, this has been the case as well, and it will continue with only weekly media windows. But it’s a step back in the right direction.
As for the training session itself, there wasn’t much to report. Both Molino and left back Milton Valenzuela — who have been out with injuries for some time — worked off to the side but did some conditioning drills, which is typically a positive sign on the road to recovery. Midfielder Perry Kitchen, who missed the last several games, was back in training, although he, along with left back Waylon Francis and midfielders Artur and Lucas Zelarayan, did not take part in all of the drills during the open portion due to, it appeared, recovery. Wingers Derrick Etienne Jr. and Alexandru Matan were not out on the field.
After going through the warmups, similar to what the team does pregame, the Crew players went to the far field at the facility and worked on passing drills, 3 v. 1 with a defender in the middle. Porter stopped the drill at times to make a point about defensive approach or to give feedback to one of the small groups. After that, the open portion was over.
It was a quick 15-minute window that the Crew allowed. Masks were required, as was social distancing with designated places to stand. Following training, there were no interviews as is typically custom — those will still take place once a week on Zoom likely up until the team moves into the new training facility in June.
But for those 15 minutes, it really felt like Crew season again and life felt normal.