Sports

How did Columbus become the USMNT’s spiritual home, and will it continue to be?


In the U.S. soccer ecosystem, there are no shortage of cities claiming to be the “home” of the sport in this country. Portland dubs itself “Soccer City, U.S.A.,” for starters. Washington, D.C., has held its share of memorable matches at the soon-to-be-demolished RFK Stadium, while fans in Seattle; Kansas City, Missouri; and elsewhere have done their bit to evolve the sport’s fan culture.

Yet when one thinks of the spiritual home for the U.S. men’s national team, it’s hard to argue against Columbus, Ohio.

The USMNT has played a total of 12 matches in Ohio’s capital city. Ten of those have been World Cup qualifiers — no city has been home to more qualifying wins that the seven in Columbus — with five of them against bitter rivals Mexico. And yes, from those matches against El Tri came the birth of “Dos a Cero,” the fixture’s uncanny ability — for a time, anyway — to crank out 2-0 score lines in favor of the U.S. Along the way, some of the most iconic moments in U.S. soccer history took place.

On Wednesday, Columbus will once again host a World Cup qualifier, this time against Costa Rica at newly minted Lower.com Field (coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN2). For adopted son Frankie Hejduk, the city’s love for the sport started out as a slow burn but is now in full flame.

“When I moved to Columbus, it was my dream to make this city a soccer town,” the former Columbus Crew and U.S. international defender said. “I knew it was a [college] football town. I thought, ‘Let’s make this a soccer town.’ Now with the players getting what they have, the stadium that we have, downtown, right in the buzz of things, I’m in a happy place. Hopefully we get another victory here in Columbus.”

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“The catalyst was to win the game”

Just how World Cup qualifiers ended up in Columbus was down to a seemingly intractable problem: How to create a home-field advantage in a country where expats tended to outnumber — or at least shout down — U.S. fans. Fan culture in the sport during the late 1990s was still in its infancy, with Sam’s Army, a precursor to the American Outlaws, just 6 years old. MLS had been around for only five years.

That reality was reinforced in 1997, when the World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Mexico was played at Foxboro Stadium, just outside of Boston. The attendance of 57,407 amounted to a hefty payday for the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), though opinions vary as to the breakdown of crowd support. USSF director of events Paul Marstellar estimated it at 75-25 in favor of the U.S, though then USSF vice-president Sunil Gulati put it closer to 50-50. The match ended 2-2, but there’s little doubt as to which team had the more passionate support.

“It was a different atmosphere. It was a little more laid back,” said Monty Rodrigues, 46, a financial analyst from Nashua, New Hampshire, who attended both the match in Foxborough and later in Columbus. “The Sam’s Army section was obviously loud and proud. [Around] the rest of the stadium, you had some people that cared, but mostly it was, ‘Hey, cool, it’s a World Cup qualifier.'”

When it came time for the USSF to pick a venue for the 2001 qualifier, a different focus had set in for then-U.S. manager Bruce Arena.

“The catalyst was to try to win the game,” Arena noted dryly. “U.S. Soccer wanted to play the game in the L.A. Coliseum, because they’d get 90,000 people at the game, and they get a big bump, obviously financially. I convinced them that the priority had to be trying to beat Mexico.”

Arena added that “it took a little while” to persuade the powers that be to look for alternatives. Gulati recalls that he’d long tempted his counterparts at the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) with an offer of playing in Los Angeles if Mexico would play its home game in either L.A. or Monterrey — at sea level, away from the lung-searing altitude and smog of the famed Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. As he suspected, the FMF never took him up on the offer and the USSF soon narrowed its focus to Crew Stadium.

At the time, it was the lone soccer-specific venue in the country and had already hosted a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in the previous round. Not only would the capacity (24,624 at the time) allow the USSF to have tighter control of ticket sales, but the location in America’s heartland made it more difficult for Mexico fans to attend. The fact that the game would be played in February didn’t hurt either.

“With a large stadium and resale and everything else, a home-field advantage was impossible,” said Gulati. “We learned that lesson in Boston. So that became Columbus, where we could go to the Crew season ticket-holders first, and so on and so forth and try to get a pro-U.S. crowd. I guess you could say having a temperature being cold was a bonus.”

The relative scarcity of tickets seemed to have the desired effect as well. Gulati recalled how FMF executive Hugo Kiese complained that he couldn’t get a ticket to the match. “I told him, ‘There’s no problem. I can get you a ticket, but you’re going to feel very alone in the stands.'”

“It was insane”

Prior to the game, there was a sense among some fans that something memorable was brewing. The team had been revamped under Arena and was beginning to put together some results. The night before, Sam Pierron, a 46-year-old IT consultant from Kansas City, was putting up banners in Crew Stadium for Sam’s Army. He’d been to his share of qualifiers, but the vibe ahead of this match was different.

“There was some serious anticipation,” he recalled. “It was unlike anything we’ve ever really felt.”

Rodrigues added, “There was almost a cockiness among the U.S. fans. It was just one of those games where you just felt something special was going on, even before the game started. That team was young and talented, and it was just an excitement that was building through the supporters’ section. And we just kind of went with that.”

What followed was one of the more memorable matches in U.S. men’s history. With temperatures hovering around freezing, Mexico didn’t even bother coming out for pregame warm-ups, handing the U.S. a huge psychological advantage.

“That was the coldest I’ve ever been at a soccer game,” said Hejduk, an unused substitute that day. “But because they didn’t come out for warm-ups, we already knew — I knew — we’re going to win. They were already, psychologically, a little bit distracted.”

Yet the match didn’t go entirely the U.S. team’s way. Brian McBride was forced off in the 15th minute after a collision with Mexico defender Rafa Marquez left the U.S. forward with an eye that was swollen shut. Claudio Reyna departed just before halftime with a groin injury, leaving the U.S. without arguably its two most important attackers. But despite those setbacks, the crowd was spurring the U.S. on, providing precisely the kind of home-field advantage that Arena & Co. had envisioned.

Columbus native Kristina Balevska, now 37, was a junior in high school at the time and had attended the 1994 World Cup with her family seven years earlier. Yet the crowd that night — perhaps due in part to the cold — was like nothing she had ever experienced.

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“I turned to my dad and said, ‘This is insane,'” she recalled. “No one was sitting down in their seats. Nobody. Everybody was on their feet. I mean, elbow to elbow, basically. And every time we would get possession, the crowd was just cheering and screaming.”

It was shortly after halftime that McBride’s and Reyna’s replacements, Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis, teamed up to score the first U.S. goal as Wolff raced onto Mathis’ through-ball, beat the well-off-his-line challenge of Mexico keeper Jorge Campos, and scored into an empty net.

Balevska was soon after the recipient of her first beer shower, though there were other tangible signs of an emerging U.S. fandom as well.

“I looked down on the row where we were, and I saw this grown man crying because we had just scored,” she said. With three minutes left, Earnie Stewart cemented the win after stellar work on the wing by Wolff. “Dos a Cero” was born, and Columbus was at the heart of it.

“All of a sudden, you’re hearing that crowd, man, like more than ever, more than I’ve ever heard any stadium that we played Mexico in,” Hejduk said. “And it feels good as a player, that energy you feed off of, and now you’re feeding off the crowd. That was the first time we really felt that aura and energy of Crew Stadium.”

It made an impression on the denizens of Columbus, too, creating new soccer converts. “It actually opened up the eyes of our city like, ‘Hey, we are a legit little soccer town here,'” said Balevska. “We might be hidden in the Midwest, but it put us on a map.”

“It’s not a pipe dream”

The 2-0 result meant a critical three points in the Hexagonal standings and got the U.S. off to a perfect start in qualifying. But for those who were there or even watched it on television, it was an inspirational moment, one that echoed down the years. Columbus Crew defender Josh Williams made the trek that night from his hometown of Copley Township, near Akron, and the game opened his eyes to what the sport meant and could be.

“That match was what made me kind of fall in love with American soccer, truly fall in love with it,” he said. “I’d always supported it, but until you experienced that, I feel like that’s when the romantic side of things started to come out, and I was hooked from there on.”

For fans like Pierron, who had been beating the soccer drum for years, the game went even deeper. Soccer had perpetually been touted as the sport of the future only to fall drastically short of such prognostications. Now those hopes came into clearer focus. They were within reach. “That game was a reminder that everything you always dreamed of can happen, it can come true. That’s what that night felt like in a lot of ways,” Pierron said. “Everything you’ve always thought of, or hoped U.S. soccer culture could be … it’s not a pipe dream.”

It was by no means the only seed planted in terms of supporters’ culture. Those have been sprinkled across the country, and at different times, but the Columbus offshoot has proved more fertile than most, continuing to germinate year after year.

Following that chilly night, there was considerable momentum to keep drinking from the Crew Stadium well. The reality is that even in subsequent years, there weren’t many other venue options for the USSF. What is now Dignity Health Sports Park came online in 2003, while Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, was built a couple of years later. But in terms of creating a home-field advantage, Columbus simply had too much going for it to play a World Cup qualifier involving the U.S. and Mexico anywhere else.

“Then it’s easy,” Gulati said. “I remember saying, ‘I’m sure at some point, we will lose in Columbus or we won’t play in Columbus, but I’m not going to be the idiot that makes that decision.'”

It certainly helped that as the World Cup cycles rolled by, the legend of Columbus and Crew Stadium kept growing for the USMNT. There was the epic Oguchi Onyewu stare-down of Mexico striker Jared Borgetti in 2005. There was the wind storm in 2009 that created wild conditions, but not enough to stop Michael Bradley from scoring both goals. After that second Bradley goal, Hejduk let out a “F— yeah!” right in front of the Mexico bench, which afterward earned him a slap by Mexico assistant Paco Ramirez in the tunnel to the locker rooms. It didn’t come close to killing Hejduk’s buzz.

“I laughed at it. We were happy. They were sad and mad, and we got the best of them, and now of course they’re going to be pissed,” Hejduk said. “But it was more of a laughable situation because I went out and had a bunch of beers that night, enjoyed myself.”

In 2013, the U.S. got word after the match that it had qualified for the 2014 World Cup, leading to a champagne celebration on the field. Granted, the Crew Stadium mojo could last only so long and in 2016, the run finally ended. Mexico claimed a 2-1 win, with old villain Marquez netting the game-winner.

By then, the USSF had additional venue options as more and more MLS stadiums were built; next month’s match against Mexico will even be held down the road at Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium. Its capacity of 26,000 is roughly 6,000 more than what Lower.com Field possesses, so in a sense, the USSF is getting the best of both worlds: a slightly bigger stadium, but one still small enough to control most of the ticketing.

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Of course, none of that dampens the legend that is Columbus and the games that have been played there. The state of Ohio continues to make contributions to the U.S. men’s national team as well, with seven Ohio natives, including Brad Friedel, the goalkeeper for that game in 2001, playing for the U.S. The Save The Crew movement also crystallized the love of the game in the city, though it’s the national team games that remain seared into the memory.

“Columbus is an incredible market that has played host to many memorable USSF matches over the years,” said David Wright, USSF chief commercial officer. “With a world-class stadium and passionate fans, we couldn’t be more excited to return.”

Will the city remain in the USSF’s World Cup qualification rotation? History counts obviously, but with more options, there is a sense that the city will have to prove itself again. Wednesday’s match against Costa Rica certainly counts as a test run.

“I still think Columbus gets a little bit of the short end of the stick with just how passionate some of these people are, and how much they care about soccer,” Williams said. “Now there’s clothing lines around the city that have those ‘Dos a Cero‘ t-shirts. Everybody around Columbus knows that scoreline because of these games.”

Crew Stadium is still standing, mind you; the site has become the Crew’s training facility. But for game days, it has been replaced by shiny, new Lower.com Field, which has drawn rave reviews from players, coaches and fans alike. The hope, especially in the wake of Sunday’s shocking 1-0 road defeat to Panama, is that some new memories will be etched into USMNT history.

“It was a good ride and now we just start over again, dude,” Hejduk said. “You’ve got these qualifiers coming up here and in Cincy. Ohio loves soccer here, and it’s really a cool thing to see.”

The USMNT has loved it back, too.

Source link: https://www.espn.com/soccer/united-states-usa/story/4495356/how-did-columbus-become-the-usmnts-spiritual-homeand-will-it-continue-to-be
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