Once upon a time, the Columbus Crew opened a soccer-specific training center just south of the city, giving the team its own place to practice, a rarity in the early years of Major League Soccer. But as MLS has evolved and teams have raised the bar, the Crew’s Obetz training ground has become outdated, specifically the facility where the players and coaches work and spend most of their time.
This week, the Black & Gold said goodbye to their old training home and moved into the brand new OhioHealth Performance Center on the grounds of historic Crew Stadium. Wednesday marked the official opening of the new facility with the ribbon-cutting ceremony and included tours for VIPs and members of the media. It was a chance for the defending MLS Cup champions and ownership to show off one of its newest crown jewels before the New Crew Stadium opens next month.
“Now’s the right time because once new ownership stepped up, stepped in to save this team along with our supporters, their vision was to be a consistent contender in MLS,” president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said when asked why this was the time to create a new facility. “And what that means is you have to give the resources to the players and coaches to do their job. And now, in our league, part of that is having a world-class training environment. And so when they bought the team in 2019, we set a path toward building a new stadium and creating a world-class training facility to go alongside our world-class coaching and our player development system. So if you weren’t going to do it now, there’s probably no other time to do it.”
And the new 42,000 square feet facility, which will house the first-team and the club’s Academy teams, really is world class.
Walking up to the facility has a completely different feeling than arriving at the old training grounds in Obetz. One of the first things anyone visiting the facility will see is the team’s trophies displayed in glasses cases just inside the main entrance. The player’s entrance features a hallway with two stars on one wall and a list of all of the Crew’s championships on the other, with space for more to be added later.
This hallway leads out to the two natural grass fields on the west side of the facility. These fields, which feature the same playing surface that was recently laid down at the New Crew Stadium that will open in July, are supported by hydronic heating and SubAir systems. There is another natural grass field that will be used by the Academy, as well as the Historic Crew Stadium field, which can be covered by a seasonal bubble. Additionally, there are 54,500 square feet of additional training space, including a 100-foot long endurance hill.
“With the Historic Crew Stadium pitch, we’ll be able to put artificial turf on that, bubble it in the offseason, which will allow our Academy teams to train at night,” Bezbatchenko said. “It allows the first team to train in December, as well as not have to go home for the offseason. They can train year-round under the facility, which again prepares them for preseason in a much better way.”
Back inside, there are a number of amenities that were never present or possible at the old facility.
There are eight locker rooms, including ones for the first team, second team, and Academy, The facility also features lounge areas, as well as places for the young players to study, do homework, work on tactics, and much more. The belief is that having a place where these Academy players can not only train but really immerse themselves in soccer will help with their development to the first team.
“Dreams. This facility is about dreams,” Bezbatchenko said. “We have a number of players in our Academy who are aspiring to be professional soccer players. And the fact of the matter is, now they can literally bump shoulders with Gyasi Zardes, Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan.
“Each locker room is age-specific, meaning when you’re young, 12, 13 years old, you have a hook on the wall. But as you progress up through the Academy, you get shelving, you get a cubby, and then all of a sudden you graduate to the first team and you have world-class space to enjoy with your teammates.”
In past years, players had to walk to the Obetz Recreational Center in order to do certain lifting workouts. The OhioHealth Performance Center comes with a full-scale gym with all the equipment necessary for players to get stronger. This weight room will be used by the first team from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and available for Academy teams after.
There is a pool and hot tub area to help with recovery. There are beds where players can sleep and recovery rooms, a 1,105 square foot player lounge, meditation and hydrotherapy areas, a barber’s chair, and an entire rehab room where multiple players can receive attention at a time.
“We started with what do the players need and we built the whole facility around what gets the players the environment that makes them most comfortable, most healthy and most likely to succeed,” team owner Dr. Pete Edwards said. “And then everything else was built from there. So the depth of the hot tubs, the size of the training room, where their boots are, where their lockers are, how far is that walk, what does it look like for them to traverse through the facility. All those were the core of what we started with and then we built out from there. So it’s what we’re about. It’s about supporting the players and creating an environment for them to succeed.”
The players will be able to have their meals prepared for them in the 3,000 square foot kitchen and eat in the 2,400 square foot dining room, which overlooks the practice fields. There is office space for more than 50 members of the coaching staff, as well as a 1,000 square foot media workroom and production space.
In addition, the Crew now has a 40-seat theater where the team will be able to watch and break down film of training sessions and games. Coming from the two-to-four-room Obetz facility, this is a major step that will only enhance the players’ ability and availability on the field.
When the Haslam and Edwards families purchased the Black & Gold, the goal was to bring the Crew into the modern era of MLS teams. With the opening of the OhioHealth Performance Center, the team has taken its first step in doing just that and the benefits will be countless.
“I’ve been in training facilities all over the world and my dream was that this facility would be on par with anything that any of the players we ever recruited would have seen wherever they are in the world and we did it,” Edwards said. “And I’m so proud that this facility is what it is… It’s just a phenomenal facility.”