COLUMBUS, Ohio – As far as stadiums go, it isn't a very noteworthy one. Two tiers of faded yellow bleachers frame the field laid amid a non-descript industrial park. Four light stanchions look down on it. An archaic roof covers just the section behind one of the goals. And that's really all there is to Columbus Crew Stadium. A Texas high school football team might scoff at playing there.
It's certainly no Estadio Azteca, that impregnable 105,000-seat colossus of concrete, narrow tunnels, swaying fences, barbed wire, flying objects and liquids up in Mexico City's hot and thin air.
And yet improbably, this facility acts as the United States men's national team 's answer to the Azteca.
Call it a quirk of demographics and geography or credit it to it being America's first soccer-specific stadium. But Crew Stadium has historically harbored the USA's first and best home-field advantage, roaring behind the Yanks as they beat Mexico 2-0 in each of their last three World Cup qualifiers here in 2001, 2005 and 2009, a series of hard and ugly, scrappy games.
"We wanted a place that would yield a good home crowd," recalled US Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "Once we went there and won that game and were successful it kind of became part of lore and we decided to go back there in the successive World Cups. If we'd lost that game my guess is we wouldn't have felt like we wanted necessarily to go back there."
But they didn't. They never have. In Columbus, the Americans are an undefeated 5-0-2 in World Cup qualifying, the best record in any stadium with as many qualifiers.
In addition to promising a rare American majority among fans, the 2001 game was held in February, the cold acting as Columbus's counter-weight to the Azteca's 7,000-foot elevation. "It was probably a little bit of a shock to them," remembered Brian McBride, who started as a striker both that day and in 2005. "We definitely enjoyed the fact that it was cold."
Klinsmann and Co. hope they can hold down the fort in Columbus. (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
"For the longest time we would play that game - that was sort of a moneymaker for U.S. Soccer - at the Rose Bowl or the Coliseum," said McBride. "I remember the first time playing against Mexico [in the U.S.], there were 95,000 people and probably 500 American fans. Times have changed. Columbus Crew Stadium was sort of the forbearer for that."
McBride had his right eye knocked shut in an early aerial collision. But his substitute Josh Wolff scored the 1-0 and set up Earnie Stewart's 2-0. In 2005, Steve Ralston nodded in a wide-open header at the goal line and DaMarcus Beasley deftly curled in the second. In 2009, a 21-year-old midfielder Michael Bradley scored twice. "Dos a cero!" chanted the U.S. fans, echoing the anthem of these games.
Last year, a rabid crowd pushed the U.S. to a desperately needed 1-0 win over Jamaica in the third qualifying phase on the anniversary of 9/11 here. This time, more than 50,000 entered the lottery for some 24,000 tickets, and the supporters' section of 9,000 will be the biggest ever.
"Columbus is one of those venues where you have that 12th man," said captain Clint Dempsey. "It gives you a little bit more wind in your sails and I think it also adds pressure to the other team. They're not as confident and a little tentative and it plays to our advantage."
While the country now brims with strong soccer markets and stadiums of the highest grade, the Americans keep returning here. "We have a lot more choices than we did then," Gulati said. "So part of it is tradition and part of it is psychology - we've been successful there. It's a little bit of superstition."
"We have history here and for soccer in our country, that's not always the case," said Bradley. "The people here in Columbus, in this part of the United States, love soccer, they love our team, they love supporting the United States, and so when come here, when we step out on to this field, there's an overwhelming feeling of American support. When you play against Mexico, when you play in these kinds of games where so much is on the line, that can help the bar swing our way."
This home-field advantage is much-needed. The USA clinched their berth for the 2006 World Cup in the 2005 game. They can clinch for Brazil 2014 on Tuesday. It will take an American win and for Honduras to draw or beat Panama at home. But with Bradley injured and striker Jozy Altidore, defender/midfielder Geoff Cameron and defender Matt Besler suspended (however unfairly , in the latter's case) because of the second yellow cards they picked up in qualifying during Friday's 3-1 loss in Costa Rica, depth will be tested. With three starters and the presumptive replacement for two of them out, and no natural right backs in the squad because of yet more injuries, the U.S. is laden with question marks.
"We'll find ways to balance it out," said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "I think we have enough quality in this entire group to make things happen tomorrow night. I'm not concerned about tomorrow night in terms of switching things around."
The Mexicans, for their part, are in the throes of an all-out crisis. They cling to fourth place in the hexagonal round by a point and stand to miss out on direct qualification with a mere eight points from seven games (1-1-5). After the 2-1 loss to Honduras last Friday, just their second at home in World Cup qualifying ever, manager Jose Manuel de aa Torre was dismissed.
But, warns US goalkeeper Tim Howard, that could only serve to galvanize their arch rivals. "Anytime there's change, particularly from the managerial side, it usually triggers a positive response," he said. "And Mexico is a heck of a team. They can frighten the life out of you, they're that talented. Whatever people say they're going through right now, I don't buy it. We've got a lot to worry about."
All this - the history, the urgency, the acrimony - proffers another Columbus classic. "Playing Mexico is always special," Klinsmann said. "We know all about their situation; they know all about our situation. Playing a game like that, high intensity, lots at stake, you can't ask for more."