Leading up to the final game at historic Crew Stadium, our countdown of the most memorable moments continues. Join the discussion on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #MRStadium.
Attending a soccer game across the United States in 2021 is much different than it was in the early years of Major League Soccer. While there are a few teams that still call football stadiums home — the Seattle Sounders, the New England Revolution, Atlanta United, for example — fans are now accustomed to walking into a stadium built for soccer when going to watch their MLS favorite team.
Thank Lamar Hunt and the Columbus Crew for that.
After playing their first three seasons at Ohio Stadium, home of the Ohio State football team, the Black & Gold needed a new home. In addition to incorrect field size and no permanent light fixtures at the famed Horseshoe, Ohio Stadium was sent to undergo renovations prior to the 1999 season that meant the Crew could not play there that summer.
A number of options were examined and multiple sites were explored for a potential new stadium. But after plenty of discussions, Hunt, the Crew’s first owner, elected to take matters into his own hands, building the United States’ first professional soccer-specific stadium on the Ohio state fairgrounds, three miles north of downtown Columbus.
After playing the first seven games of the 1999 season on the road, and going 5-2 in the process, the Black & Gold finally opened the $28.5 million Columbus Crew Stadium on May 15, 1999, against the New England Revolution. It was a historic day for the club, the city, MLS and American soccer as a whole.
A Saturday evening kickoff saw 24,741 fans attend the match, an overflow crowd given the 22,555-seat capacity of the stadium at the time. Eventually, the pre-game festivities of tailgating and other revelries gave way to an actual soccer game on the field.
Just 10 minutes into the match, the sellout crowd, which barely had time to sit down, was back on their feet, celebrating an early 1-0 lead. Stern John stole the ball from a New England defender inside the Revs’ half and streaked down the sideline. John sent a cross into the penalty area, finding fellow forward Jeff Cunningham, who took a deft touch to hold off his defender before playing a lofted shot over goalkeeper Walter Zenga and into the net for the first goal in Crew Stadium history.
“It was exciting,” Cunningham said of his experience of the opening of the new stadium. “I’ve never been part of anything like this... To be here playing in front of 24,000 or 25,000 people all screaming at the same time... You can just keep running. You don’t get tired.”
Fourteen minutes into the second half, Cunningham showed fresh legs as he returned the favor to John.
After winning the ball at the back, the Black & Gold quickly moved into the attacking half of the field. Winger Andy Williams dribbled forward before finding defender Matt Kmosko who streaked up the field. Kmosko sprayed the ball wide to Cunningham who crossed to a wide open John at the back post for a headed finish and a 2-0 lead.
While a sixth win of the season and another three points were important for the Crew on that night, the focus was clearly on the new soccer-specific stadium.
“It’s just an unbelievable day,” Crew head coach Tom Fitzgerald said that night. “Because we own the stadium, it’s our stadium. It’s like defending your home. Nobody comes in and takes something from your home. We want to set a precedent right off the bat.”
Columbus completed the 1999 season with a 19-13 record, 10-6 at Crew Stadium, finishing second in the Eastern Conference. The Black & Gold swept the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the East semifinals of the MLS Cup playoffs. The Crew then once again fell in three games to rivals D.C. United in the conference finals.
While the year didn’t have the picture-perfect ending of a first MLS Cup title, it was still an immensely successful season for Columbus. The opening of Crew Stadium began a trend that saw teams around MLS begin to look into building their own soccer-specific stadiums, which set the bar for today’s league.
As the Black & Gold prepare to open a sparkling new stadium in downtown Columbus, it’s only fitting to look back and remember how it all began for not just the Crew, but for all of American soccer.
Read Massive Report’s previous Crew Stadium Moments