On Saturday night, the Columbus Crew will play their final match at Historic Crew Stadium before opening up their swanky new downtown stadium on July 3rd. Historic Crew Stadium isn’t the only home the Crew has ever known though. For the first three years of the club’s existence, the Crew played at Ohio Stadium.
The inaugural MLS season kicked off on April 6th, 1996 with the league consisting of 10 teams. While there was some historic stadiums like the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Arrowhead Stadium involved as venues, Ohio Stadium boasted the highest capacity in the league at 102,329.
The first match in Columbus Crew history came on April 13th, 1996 at Ohio Stadium against D.C. United. 25,266 were in attendance at The Horseshoe to see the franchise’s first-ever match, and Crew fans in attendance left the iconic stadium happy, as Columbus won 4-0. The Crew’s first-ever goal came in the 18th minute thanks to a D.C. United own goal. First overall draft pick Brian McBride scored two goals that were sandwiched between a Pete Marino goal to complete a dream start for the Crew.
Columbus had a hard time living up to their tremendous start to the season, earning just 11 more points in their next 21 games before head coach Timo Lickoski resigned. The move lit a fire under the Crew, who would go 9-1 under interim coach Tom Fitzgerald to earn a spot in the MLS playoffs.
The MLS playoff structure in their early years is a lot different from what we see today, with conference semifinals and finals being a best-of-three format. The Crew hosted their first playoff game on Sept. 25th, 1996 with 20,807 in attendance to see Columbus fall 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Columbus would win the second game in Tampa before falling in the rubber match.
Even though Columbus faced some tough moments in their first season, fans showed up throughout the year to support their club. They were recognized for it as well, as USA Today named Crew fans the best in the league. Columbus averaged 18,950 fans per game in attendance, and the highest attendance mark of the season for the Crew came in the regular season finale when they drew 31,550 fans.
The Crew saw a little bit of a dip in attendance the following year, averaging 15,043 fans in 16 home games. While not as many fans came out to see them, the Crew actually had a better season in 1997. After earning some revenge on Tampa Bay by sweeping the Mutiny in the first round of the playoffs, the Crew would lose in the conference finals to D.C. United, who would go on to win MLS Cup for the second-straight season.
Even though good times were had at Ohio Stadium with the Crew in the first two seasons, everyone knew a change was coming soon. The Horseshoe was scheduled to undergo a renovation after the 1998 season, meaning that the Crew needed to find a new home for the 1999 season.
After a proposal that would have built the Crew a stadium downtown was voted down, and a proposal for a Dublin stadium was also denied, plans for a stadium on the grounds of the Ohio Expo Center were approved. Columbus would soon have the first soccer-specific stadium in the country.
Columbus again would see its attendance at Ohio Stadium sag in the final season at the venue, with Crew home matches averaging 12,275 spectators. Columbus wasn’t quite able to capitalize with having five players on their roster that were part of the 1998 World Cup. Along with Brian McBride, Thomas Dooley, and others, the Crew had Stern John, who scored a league-high 26 goals. Columbus would again make it to the Eastern Conference Finals before again failing to topple D.C. United.
Even though there is a lot of history that will be celebrated during the Crew’s time at Historic Crew Stadium, we can’t forget that Ohio Stadium was home to the Crew while plans were put into place for their eventual home. While I wish we could have seen MLS Cup and USA/Mexico matches at Ohio Stadium like we did at Historic Crew Stadium, the three years at Ohio Stadium add to the incredible history of The Horseshoe.