I never expected any part of my first Major League Soccer game to remind me of the movie ‘Jurassic Park.’
The announcer had just encouraged the crowd to make noise anticipating the emergence of the players from the northwest tunnel of Crew Stadium, his voice muffled to those of us inside the glassed-in press box.
Just like that, the majority of the more than 19,000 people in attendance stomped their feet vigorously enough to make the room shake. It felt as if Columbus was situated on the Ring of Fire and experiencing a mild earthquake.
It was just the beginning of an entertaining Saturday evening.
Ohio’s Major League Soccer franchise, the Columbus Crew, was set to face the New England Revolution. Entering the contest, the Revolution was one point ahead of the Crew in the Eastern Conference standings and each team was seeking a victory to propel themselves into contention for the fifth and final playoff spot.
During the pregame radio show, Ohio State men’s soccer coach John Bluem interviewed the head men of both squads about the night’s upcoming contest. Both Jay Heaps of the Revolution and the Crew’s Robert Warzycha showed respect for their opponent, yet realized the importance of the matchup.
“Columbus Crew’s an excellent team. We have to bring our best stuff tonight,” said Heaps.
That they did.
Heap’s New England team vanquished the home team 2-0 in a back-and-forth game that saw a scoreless tie endure through the expiration of the 90th minute of regulation.
Crew Cat, the team’s mascot, led a preliminary flag-bearing charge on to the field by carrying the one with the Crew’s logo. Four flags, emblazoned with each of the team name’s four letters, followed in tow. In a stirring display of spirit, fans cheered as each standard-bearer ran to a corner of the stadium to wave their letter while Crew Cat remained at the center of the field doing the same.
Section 141, known as “Nordecke,” (meaning “north corner” in German) is where some of the more zealous members of the Crew’s fan base tend to stand—not sit—for home games. Through a window on the right wall of the press box, I could see supporters energetically shaking flags of their own, varying in pattern from a black and gold checker to striped gold, black and white.
The respectful silence that immediately followed the frenzied scene was even more impressive.
In particular, I’m referring to the silence in the press box.
I was pleasantly surprised when every member of the press and Crew media team wordlessly stood without cue, request or hesitation for the national anthem. Just like the shock of Jurassic Park nostalgia: unexpected.
The chaos resumed in Nordecke after the anthem with smoke emanating from some form of pyrotechnic in the section, and fireworks boomed from the south parking lot.
The crowd showed its penchant for tradition when it eagerly yelled each Crew player’s last name after the announcer introduced them by stating, in order, their hometown, position, jersey number and first name.
I said to myself, “Okay, Crew Stadium, you have my attention. Game on.”
New England hardly wasted time bringing pressure to the Crew defense, as goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum recorded his 66th save of the season a mere four minutes into play.
Laptop keys clattered softly as reporters and bloggers around me documented their observations and tweeted relentlessly. I made a mental note to follow the example of writers for The Columbus Dispatch and MLS Futbol and bring binoculars to the next game I cover.
The fans weren’t the only ones pumped up for the match. On a television replay, Revolution forward Chad Barrett clearly mouthed, “What the (expletive) is that?” to Crew defenseman Chad Barson as he shoulder checked him in retaliation for physical play.
Assistant referees signaled offsides four times during the game, three of which were committed by Crew forward Dominic Oduro who placed his hands on the back of his head in disbelief after the second.
Revs defender Andrew Farrell was the only player on the field who was inexplicably wearing neither shin guards nor the knee-high socks that are typically used to secure them in place.
Farrell did not only make unusual equipment choices: he was one of two Revolution players to receive a yellow card, the other being fellow defender A.J. Soares. The Crew faithful were more than pleased, issuing roaring approvals for each foul.
The starters kept the pace of the game lively, as the ball frequently crossed the midfield line throughout with possession changes.
In the 36th minute, forward Aaron Schoenfeld fell awkwardly on his shoulder after being tackled as he chased down the ball near the goal line. He was in visible pain, crumpled on the ground and kicking it with both feet as he awaited the arrival of team medical staff. Schoenfeld left the game and was replaced by reserve Ben Speas.
Crew PR representatives confirmed after the game that Schoenfeld had sustained a separated shoulder injury.
Shots on goal happened in exciting fashion toward the close of the first half. Barson had a promisingly powerful kick deflected by a Revs defender, and Farrell booted the ball for New England with a curving kick that bounced off the right goalpost.
Gruenebaum made another fantastic save for the Crew amid a sea of blue Revolution jerseys. His gloved hand rose out of the pack to secure the ball as he ran away from his goal.
Halftime afforded me the opportunity to go absorb a bit of the occasion’s atmosphere out in the stadium’s upper concourse. Having been to NFL and MLB games where the visiting team always has at least some presence in the stands, I was frankly shocked that I didn’t see a single person sporting New England Revolution colors.
Nordecke feverishly waved promotional white towels that had been distributed during the break as the second half commenced.
During one possession, Speas made a promising fast break to try for an angle on the goal. The defender’s tackle was so physical as they went out of bounds that Speas had to somersault over the low wall behind the goal line to avoid crashing into it.
As night fell, a beautiful orange and pink sunset was the backdrop behind the Crew’s side of the field, while darkly overcast skies framed their opponent’s half of the pitch.
Three New England substitutions in the second half (58’, 68’, 82’) figured to provide an offensive spark, but the Crew defense hung tough.
The audience showed it was craving a score when the stadium audibly sighed with disappointment after Oduro missed another shot on goal. A dramatic sequence of Crew passes from Higuain and Speas had set up Oduro for a perfectly angled shot, but an untimely bounce ruined the chance for a smooth strike.
Minutes later, Speas juggled the ball in midair with three consecutive touches and tapped it forward to give Oduro a good look, but his shot was deflected away by a Revolution player.
It started to feel like highlight reel plays were just seconds—or inches—away.
Another Crew shot in the 83rd minute of regulation zipped over the crossbar and thudded into the side of a field-level concession stand. With what was arguably the prettiest shot of the night that did not yield any points, Speas crossed the ball from the left side of the box to the right goalpost but it bent to the right and missed by the slimmest of margins.
In a strategic move that he defended in a postgame press conference, Warzycha saved his discretionary substitutions until the last 9 minutes of the game (85’, 89’).
“We take them off the field when they’re tired. And if you need to generate more offense, then maybe you have fresh legs. So that’s why, you know, that’s why we waited until then,” said Warzycha.
But the Crew offense was never able to hit pay dirt.
Jose Goncalves’ header in the first minute of stoppage time on an assisting kick from Lee Nguyen sailed devastatingly through the legs of a mid-air Gruenebaum, who was trying to sink to the ground to envelop the ball with his body. He was a moment too late.
A few fans trickled up the aisles after the score, but most of the crowd stuck around to witness the game’s conclusion.
Until the second Revolution goal 2 minutes later.
Gruenebaum gambled by rushing forward to meet reserve midfielder Diego Fagundez in an attempt to block his shot. The move backfired, and Fagundez easily maneuvered around the keeper and tapped the ball into a wide-open goal.
That was the nail in the Crew’s coffin and fans began their mass exodus.
“Felt like we could have gotten one, should have gotten one. So, yeah, it’s unfortunate. We need to go and fix what we can to get the ball in the back of the net. You can play pretty, but you’ve got to get it in the back of the net,” Speas said in a locker room interview after the game.
An inscription on the wall of the Crew locker room proclaimed, “I CAN OVERCOME.”
Even in a losing effort, the Crew certainly looked like they have all the tools to do so.
It goes without saying that I need to return to Crew Stadium for another of these compelling MLS matchups to find out whether the team will.