A year and a day since the Black & Gold hoisted its second MLS Cup trophy inside Historic Crew Stadium, the Academy players were back playing in the same spot, but under different circumstances.
It was a fairly uneventful afternoon – one filled with another training session – but its significance is massive in what it means for the Black & Gold.
Anyone who’s driven on I-71 north of downtown is used to seeing Historic Crew Stadium, the spiritual home of American soccer. But what’s different the past month is a massive white bubble towers over the top of the field.
No, it’s not a big inflatable snow globe. In fact, it’s designed to be the opposite: the bubble allows Crew players to remain in Columbus while still being able to train on a full-size field during the offseason.
It’s a visible example of the club setting new standards for clubs in MLS. While players around the league travel across the globe to train for 2022, Crew players can head to the OhioHealth Performance Center, per usual, and can practice similarly to how they would during the regular season.
“Our ability to convert Historic Crew Stadium into a bubble is a massive advantage that we did not have in previous years,” said Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Even during preseason, there are times with where you are (in a warmer climate), if there’s a nice storm, you can’t have training during preseason.
“So, the bubble allows us to keep players in market who would go otherwise. It allows us to stay in market during preseason longer, which is a benefit to the players and their families. Obviously, from a developmental perspective, it’s really beneficial for the academy players in the offseason and even getting players individual sessions on the field.”
By controlling the climate within the bubble, players throughout the Crew organization have access to practicing on a pitch that is in 50–60-degree weather regardless of what’s happening outside during a chilly Ohio winter.
The club has had access to other indoor practice facilities in the past, but none of them were a full field in size, which limited the amount of space that players and coaches had to utilize.
This bubble, which was paid for by the ownership group, allows the Black & Gold to remain at their practice facility and use the same amenities without using resources from other teams.
The installation of the bubble is just another reminder how the Crew are setting a new example of what clubs can be in MLS. For teams playing in warmer climates, this isn’t as necessary, but the bubble not only gives the team a place to train for the offseason, but also when the 2022 preseason begins.
Typically, teams around the league travel to warmer states for weeks at a time. Maybe that’s a trip to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, or the Sun Cup out in Tucson, Arizona. That’s a possibility for Columbus in the future, but it won’t have to be a necessity as it was in the past.
“(The bubble allows us to keep) players in town who would’ve needed to go elsewhere,” Bezbatchenko said. “That’s exactly one of the main benefits of having a bubble. For a number of reasons, in Columbus, we don’t have the facilities yet that some of the other larger markets do in terms of indoor space. Clearly being in a cold-weather climate, we need to be able to train together in a full field setting.”
For now, the Academy and individuals on the Crew first team are utilizing the space. But in a month when MLS preseason arrives, the first team will be in the bubble practicing.
In 2021, a constant theme for the club was creating a foundation for the future. Off the field, that included the opening of Lower.com Field, the OHPC and unveiling new branding that shows the team is reimagining its potential in the city of Columbus, in MLS and in the global soccer ecosystem.
The bubble opens new possibilities for the club to train in a preseason or in preparation for future appearances in the Concacaf Champions League. It also allows players to stay home and train without needing to spend time elsewhere.
Case in point: Gyasi Zardes missed the end of the 2021 Crew season with an injury, but he stayed in Columbus to rehab and remain in shape. Now, he’s in the United States Men’s National Team squad that faces Bosnia and Herzegovina on Saturday in an international friendly.
“The offseason, I view it as a time to get better,” Zardes. “While others are sleeping or are relaxing and hanging out, I’m just going to keep working out to try and make myself better for next year. The goal is to bring more trophies in the trophy case here at this organizations.”
Now, players like Zardes can train without needing to go elsewhere.
Crew players, coaches and supporters don’t need to look elsewhere to find great examples of what a club can be. There’s already an MLS club setting a new standard, and it’s right here in Columbus.