Through eight Major League Soccer regular season matches, Columbus Crew SC sits second in the Eastern Conference — buoyed by four dominant performances at MAPFRE Stadium. Unbeaten at home since September 10, 2016, the Black & Gold return for a three-match home stand as springtime in Central Ohio has taken hold.
Entering Week 9 with an opportunity to defend their dominance against New York City FC — a team that's never won at MAPFRE Stadium in three visits — Crew SC know what they're up against in the defending League MVP in David Villa and Co.
“I think we’ve done a decent job of getting points so far this season; there are 15 other teams that don’t have as many points as us in the League," Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter said on Wednesday at the EAS Training Center at Obetz. "We want to win every single game we are in, whether home or away. With these home games, are especially comfortable because we get to play in front of our fans and show them the results of the hard work that we put in through training all week. We want to show them an exciting game.”
Berhalter's Black & Gold host the New England Revolution on May 6 in the second match of the three-match home stand before quickly turning to host 2016 MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC on May 10. Having already claimed 10 of 12 possible points at home this season and 13 points in total this season, Crew SC has another nine maximum points up for grabs over a 12-day span.
“We want to stay undefeated at home," Crew SC midfielder Justin Meram said. "We are in a good position after playing four away and four at home to open the season. We want to be in an even stronger position after these three home matches coming up. Last year, we struggled at home. This year, we know that no one will come into our place and out-battle us. That intensity matched with the way we play and the fans behind us, it all comes together to make something special.”
Meram has played a vital role in the change from 2016's campaign to this season's. He's played in all eight of Columbus' matches this year, scoring four times off nine shots on-goal and providing two assists. All six goals he played a role in — either as the scorer or provider — came at MAPFRE Stadium.
Thanks to producers like Meram, Crew SC has scored a total of eight goals spread across every home match this season. All in all, Crew SC has scored at least once in its last 15 home matches — dating back to June 25, 2016. That run includes 24 goals and 26 points claimed.
“It’s the comfort of playing at home," Meram said. "We know the surface — it’s one of the best in the League — and that’s perfect for us because we like to keep the ball on the pitch. It has a feel to it to play at MAPFRE Stadium, with the crowd behind us. All of those things combined help us make for a dominant performance and we just have to keep it up.”
Meram stands as Crew SC longest-tenured active player, but the psychological advantages of playing at MAPFRE Stadium and in front of the Nordecke extend to every member of the roster and technical staff.
“I think it needs to be studied, you know, why teams are affected so much by playing on the road," Berhalter said. "In MLS especially, the home team has a huge advantage — it’s hard to describe or explain exactly why.”
Between all 22 MLS teams this season, home teams have gone 53-14-21 with a win percentage of 60 percent.
One of Crew SC's newest faces, midfielder Mohammed Abu, has played just 76 minutes at home for Black & Gold so far. He's seen a difference, though, after spending six seasons in Europe with Manchester City, Stromsgodset IF, Rayo Vallecano and FC Lorient.
"This is football," he said on Wednesday. "Anything happens. We are professional players, but we are energized by the support at MAPFRE Stadium. Being unbeaten at home, we know that we are difficult to play. That gets into the head of your opponents too. We want to carry on through the whole season without a loss at home in front of our supporters because they are always behind us. They push us and that is important to us. The sun has been shining now and we are looking forward to playing some beautiful soccer with a full stadium in Columbus.”
Backliner Nicolai Naess — having joined Crew SC in 2016 from Stabaek in Norway — is just one of two Columbus players to have played every second of every match in 2017. For him, the difference comes through loud and clear at MAPFRE Stadium.
“On the backline, I am close to the fans — I don’t always know what they are saying, but I can hear them," he said. "I know the opponents can hear them too, and that helps. We can hear the the whole game — the fans don’t stop. That means a lot to us. They lift you up. Playing at home is about having the support at your back, you look toward the Nordecke and you see the Gold wall and that means a lot to us. They push us that little bit more to score the next goal or to make a stop defensively. It’s special, I wish we could play every match at home.