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‘It’s a stadium that means a lot to me’ - Crew stars past and present reflect on the closing of Crew Stadium

Caleb Porter, Gregg Berhalter, Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes give their thoughts on the U.S.’s first soccer-specific stadium.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Every American soccer fan, and likely some that aren’t American soccer fans, have memories of Crew Stadium. The staff at Massive Report wrote 16 stories about our favorite memories.

The country’s first professional soccer-specific stadium opened in 1999 and served as the home of the Columbus Crew, a safe haven for the United States Men’s National Team a concert venue, an American football field and much more over the last 22-plus years. On Saturday, Crew Stadium will host its last Black & Gold match as the Crew gets ready to open a new stadium downtown.

While this new stadium will be a new crowned jewel in Major League Soccer, to many, there is something bittersweet about closing the doors on Crew Stadium.

“I know nowadays people say it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, but I still think it’s a very cool stadium,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said this week. “And at that time (it opened), it was the best stadium. It didn’t have the VIP suites, but it’s still a great structure and I don’t think that can be understated.”

Porter is one of many who were impacted by the opening of Crew Stadium. As a college player at Indiana University, Porter watched his former Hoosier teammates Brian Maisonneuve, Todd Yeagley and Mike Clark put on professional jerseys with the Crew. This inspired him, letting him know there was a pathway to being a professional player in America in MLS.

When he watched Columbus open Crew Stadium in 1999 while playing in MLS with the San Jose Clash, it only cemented the thought that the league was for real.

“If you were a part of the game, which I was as a player, you knew about this moment, you knew of this soccer-specific stadium and I think it was, in a lot of ways, a monumental moment for the growth of the sport, the league,” Porter said. “Prior to that, I remember being in Tampa, I remember being in San Jose and playing in football stadiums and it didn’t feel professional even though you were professional. And I think rising tides raise all ships and I think that moment, that investment, that statement had a huge ripple effect across our country and across our league.”

Gregg Berhalter had a different experience. Despite being only a year older than Porter, Berhalter had played professionally in Europe for five years before Crew Stadium opened. The former Black & Gold head coach and current United States Men’s National Team manager knew what it was like to play in a stadium built for soccer, as opposed to the football stadiums MLS teams used prior, and understood the impact of Crew Stadium opening its doors.

“Being in Europe, you’re used to all the stadiums and every town having their stadium, soccer specific, and it was great to see it take hold in America and that be the first one,” Berhalter told Massive Report. “To me, it was about just the proximity of the fans to the field, a setup solely designed for soccer. All those things made for the atmosphere that you’re looking for.”

While he wasn’t able to watch that May 15, 1999 stadium opener, it wasn’t long until Berhalter got to see the new home of the Crew first hand with the U.S. National Team. Berhalter took part in a number of games at Crew Stadium as a player, but the one that stood out was the 2005 2-0 U.S. win against Mexico.

“It was amazing,” he remembered of that game. “It was amazing because we played there before in friendly games but this atmosphere was just different level. It happened to be on a day where we qualified, we beat Mexico 2-0 and it just had everything in one. It was probably one of my most memorable moments as a player, playing in Crew Stadium for sure, because the atmosphere was electric and you saw the power of a sold out, packed stadium, soccer specific, the effect it can have on an opponent.”

Porter and Berhalter are among only six full-time head coaches that called Crew Stadium home. Each led their team to an MLS Cup Final in the stadium, Porter winning twice, once as the manager of the Portland Timbers against Berhalter’s Crew.

While Porter is still making memories as the man in charge of the Black & Gold, Berhalter’s success in Columbus led to bigger and better things with the national team. Coaching the Americans means playing in stadiums around the country and the world, but Berhalter still reflects fondly on his time at Crew Stadium.

“I remember coming from my job interview, and as I’m walking through the tunnels of the stadium and see all the banners,” he recalled. “There’s one banner with the national team from that day when we qualified and I’m in it, Frankie (Hejduk)’s in it, Claudio (Reyna)’s in it, and it was a really cool moment to think about the history of that stadium. Now that I was going to be coaching there every game I think was just a really cool moment.

As for a favorite memory from his experience as the head coach at Crew Stadium, Berhalter couldn’t name just one.

“A couple of things come to mind. I think the first thing would be probably the Eastern Conference Final against Red Bull when we scored in the first minute,” he said. “It was just a crazy atmosphere. I think of a lot of the playoff games that we played, just the intensity getting ratcheted up in those games. And then another great moment, as a spectator, was watching the team win a championship last year. Seeing that and knowing everything that fanbase has gone through.”

Similarly, Wil Trapp had multiple memories come to mind when reflecting on his time at Crew Stadium. The Columbus native, who signed with the club as a Homegrown player in 2013, played seven seasons for the Black & Gold, including three years as the team’s captain. Prior to that, he won a state championship for Gahanna Lincoln High School at Crew Stadium and had a number of other memories on the grounds he called home.

“I would say the first real memory I have is watching the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup at the viewing parties there,” Trapp told Massive Report. “I’d probably been to games before that. You know what, the U.S. Open Cup Final in ‘01. Freddy Garcia, John Wilmar Perez, those guys.”

Unlike Porter and Berhalter, Trapp didn’t have the experience of professional soccer games across the U.S. in football stadiums that didn’t fit the event. Born in 1993, Trapp more or less grew up with Crew Stadium in his backyard.

“I think I was still so young that I didn’t really understand the significance so much as I did just, here’s our professional team and we have a place that we can go and watch them play that’s their building,” he explained. “I think that was cool, that was like, ‘Wow, this is geared for soccer.’ You’re not in a football stadium, you’re not in a baseball stadium, you’re in a soccer stadium.”

Trapp’s former teammate, Gyasi Zardes, wasn’t raised in Columbus, so the connection to Crew Stadium wasn’t as immediate. But the current Black & Gold forward played games at the country’s first soccer-specific stadium early in his career with the LA Galaxy and with the national team.

Even prior to being traded to the Crew in 2018, Zardes had an appreciation for what Crew Stadium meant for the sport and looks forward to sending it out the right way on Saturday.

“It’s a stadium that means a lot to me,” he said. “I won an MLS Cup here, this club welcomed me with open arms and my family loves it here and we love coming to this stadium and watching me play. So it means a lot to be a part of this final game, a part of a stadium that holds so much history here in America and I’m extremely excited just to step on the field tomorrow and represent the club and play in one of the first soccer-specific stadiums in our country.

“To be able to play in front of a sold out crowd, it’s going to be incredible. There’s going to be a lot of emotion.”

Saturday’s final game at Crew Stadium will add another moment to the venue’s history. For Porter and Zardes, it will be a chance to say goodbye in person, while Berhalter and Trapp will have to do so from afar.

“I feel sad a little bit,” Trapp remarked. “Sad because that’s what I associate with the club. It sounds funny, but walking up the parking lot and people tailgating around the stadium. There’s just something about that that’s unique to the club, unique to my experience that you’ll miss.”

But with one stadium closing, another one opens as the Crew gets set to move three miles to downtown. This, in Berhalter’s eyes, is a sign of progress for MLS’s first club, opening its third stadium in team history.

“I think it’s remarkable what Crew Stadium stood for, but it’s just as remarkable is what new Crew Stadium stands for,” he said. “Just progress in the league and the league establishing itself as a top league and owners investing heavily in infrastructure. When you look at the training ground at Crew Stadium and now the new Crew Stadium, it’s a different level that we’re arriving upon right now in MLS.”