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Commentary: Crew Stadium a great fan experience

The stands erupted in applause when the referee issued a red card violation to Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare, ensuring the visitors would be down a man for the final hour of their match against the Columbus Crew Saturday night.

Soumare was ejected after his physical and ill-advised tackle in the 29th minute prevented a clear scoring opportunity for Crew forward Jairo Arrieta.

The Crew seized momentum early in the contest and afforded the Fire, fellow Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls, few opportunities to score. The Crew’s exceptional ball handling, active passing and stingy defense carried them to a 3-0 victory.

The win improved the Crew’s chances of making the playoffs, moving them within two points of fifth-place New England Revolution in the standings. The Crew will play the Revolution in the team’s final two regular season games next month.

If they play as well in those games as they did Saturday, Columbus fans will get to see their team enter the postseason for the first time since 2011.

After covering Crew games from the press box during the summer for The Lantern, this game marked my first attendance as a fan in the stands. The experience of being immersed in the action was quite different.

The aforementioned red card and two other infractions were unexpectedly announced in both English and Spanish. The incessant beat of a drum kit brought and played by Chicago Fire supporters boomed at the south end of the stadium. Fireworks exploded and fast-paced rock music played over the sound system after each goal.

Fans audibly surged up whenever the Crew threatened to make a scoring play. The best example of this happened when defender Chad Marshall’s header toward the goal seemed to slow in midair as the stadium eagerly anticipated a chance to cheer. Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson dramatically deflected the ball, however, and the crowd let out a collective sigh.

Roving the stadium to absorb more of the atmosphere provided some surprises. The radio play-by-play commentary broadcasted outward to parking lot tailgaters was deafeningly loud in the south gate plaza. Being able to witness live play through the tunnel at field level was an experience that shrank the game down to reality and eliminated the inaccessible glamour often ascribed to professional sports.

Halftime brought more surprises, as staff divided the field into four areas and set up miniature practice nets for a stampede of children who streamed onto the field to engage in 10-minute scrimmages. Crew defender Agustín Viana’s speech during a Jumbotron video segment during the break echoed off the opposite side of the stadium.

Frankie Hejduk, former Crew player and captain of the 2008 MLS Cup championship team, now works in the franchise’s front office as a promoter of the team in the Columbus community. Saturday was no different, as he hung out with supporters who described themselves as “hooligans” at Crew Stadium’s Upper 90 Club and bought a round of drinks for them.

Crew Stadium makes for an enjoyable cultural and game-watching experience, particularly when the home team gives its audience a reason to make the place buzz with excitement.

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