Two days shy of his 14th birthday, in a neon green shirt somewhere along the Crew Stadium sideline, Sean Zawadzki watched Hector Jimenez curl a ball into the far-right corner for a 90th-minute goal against D.C. United on April 19, 2014.
A member of the Crew Academy at the time and a ball boy for that game, Zawadzki was drawn to the roar of the crowd that reverberated around the stadium, even if it was only half full.
Almost eight years to the day, Zawadzki will play a professional game with Crew 2 — the Crew’s reserve team in the MLS Next Pro league — at the stadium where he and other players on the roster, such as Westerville native Abdi Mohamed, had their dreams of being a professional soccer player created.
As one of the few Crew 2 players who are on the Crew's MLS roster, it's understandable for Zawadzki to look forward to his Crew debut. But getting to play at the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS, when a year ago it seemed there would never be another game played there, has some sentimental value, too.
“I've grown up watching games on that field, essentially my whole life,” Zawadzki said. “Being able to play a meaningful game now, it's special because of how much this stadium means to everyone. Not just players, but even fans.”
The Crew had an official send-off in June for the final game at what the club renamed Historic Crew Stadium. Fans and players hung around to rejoice in a building that is forever etched into the history of American soccer, just before moving downtown to a building the Crew hope has the same affect.
All along, however, the plan was to use the stadium in the inaugural season of the MLS Next Pro league as the home of Crew 2, which is essentially a Triple-A affiliate. Crew 2 opens its home schedule at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Orlando City B. Not many teams in the league have a separate home that is a full stadium, let alone fans who will want to attend just to be back inside the old building.
"I was thinking about it earlier actually,” Mohamed said. “Columbus Crew is the only organization that has two soccer stadiums. That's something that's very special.”
Graduating from Westerville Central High School and playing at Ohio State before transferring to Akron, Mohamed always thought he wouldn’t hesitate to come back to Columbus if the opportunity was there. As the talent and money in MLS continues to grow, the conventional avenue for college players to get to the league via the MLS draft has become increasingly unlikely. After graduating from Akron, Mohamed did what many college players have done by playing with teams in the United Soccer League.
Now there’s an easier pathway for players who take the college route to join an MLS club, or at least be affiliated with one. For Mohamed, it means his mom, dad, nephew and those of his 10 siblings who are still in the area can come watch him play.
"It was a dream for me to play professionally here in the U.S. It was also another dream for me to play locally here in Columbus with my family and my friends,” Mohamed said. “This is the place where I grew up, so having them come to the games with ease is a dream.”
Mohamed attended his first game when David Beckham made his appearance in Columbus with the LA Galaxy in 2008. He would go to almost every game that didn’t conflict with his club team. He was inspired by his high school teammate's dad, Frankie Hejduk, and Kei Kamara. Though he was away from Columbus at the time, he followed the Save The Crew saga, thinking the team was going to get moved.
“If that were to happen, I feel like dreams of little kids that grow up and look up to all these players here, I think those dreams would be crushed,” Mohamed said. “Thankfully that didn't happen.”
He has played in Crew Stadium before, but doing so with the Crew crest on his jersey will mean a little something more.
"I think right before the whistle blows, I'm going to probably think back to high school days when I played there and now playing there again as part of the Crew 2 organization,” he said. “It's going to be very surreal.”
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: What Crew 2’s home opener means to players who grew up at Crew Stadium