COLUMBUS, OHIO – A few hundred of them had hung around, just in case.
It was looking an awful lot like it would happen, after all. They'd sung and danced and bounced and yelled all day and all night, jumping so hard on the wooden bleachers in the supporters' section that they'd broken a dozen or so of them. They'd lived nervously and vicariously through the United States men's national team 's every play in yet another 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Mexico here -- the fourth in a row, dating back to 2001. Now, these last hardy hardcore fans that had imbued the occasion with such heart-rending national pride couldn't stand the thought of missing out on celebrating with their Yanks if they clinched that berth in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
So they assembled around the player tunnel in a corner of the stadium and watched on the scoreboard as Honduras and Panama played out the end of their game. The Hondurans needed not to lose for the United States to qualify directly with two games to spare. And they were up 2-1 deep in the second half.
The US players had taken a few laps of honor following the game and then ducked into their locker room, where they kept up on the game on television.
Outside, where the humidity cloaked their sweaty bodies as the temperature refused to drop out of the 90s, the fans amused themselves with silly songs, most of them unprintable.
Panama equalized in injury time.
Tim Howard celebrates USA's World Cup qualification with fans at Columbus Crew Stadium (Image: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images).
At length, the final whistle rung out and a roar rose from their hoarse throats. They could now sing it with certainty, rather than speculatively: "We are going to Braziiil! We are going, we are going, we are going to Braziiil!"
Meanwhile, inside the locker room "you can say a little party went off," said Alejandro Bedoya. "We had some good fun with some champagne and all that. It was a relief, we were all sitting there watching the game."
"It was a little nervy," said Landon Donovan. "The assumption was that regardless of what happens we're going to qualify but you want it finalized."
DaMarcus Beasley emerged from the tunnel first, wearing only a towel around his waist and a white t-shirt that read "Qualified," running at the fans and spraying champagne from a bottle. Behind him followed his peers, mostly barefoot, spraying beer on each other and into the bouncing stands.
They sang; they danced.
They formed a circle and shoved captain Clint Dempsey into their midst. "Deuce is the captain of our ship!" they sang as he frenetically hopped about and pulled his shirt off.
The relief was palpable.
It had been a treacherously winding road. The Americans had been utterly unconvincing in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, trying to execute and adjust to newish head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's tactics, methods and wishes. The final round began with a disheveling 2-1 loss at Honduras.
Ahead of their next two games, a minor mutiny seemed to break out, as a dozen or so players anonymously griped to Sporting News about all the changes Klinsmann had brought. But they rallied. An impressive home win over Costa Rica while getting buried in snow and a rare away tie against Mexico put them back on a track. Then they reeled off three consecutive wins over Jamaica, Panama and Honduras, setting them up to clinch on Friday. They lost to Costa Rica 3-1 and so clinched on Tuesday instead.
Klinsmann no longer looks lost. Instead, he looks like what the United States Soccer Federation had hoped for when they hired him -- the guy to take them to the next level.
"This is a huge, huge evening for all of us and we're all extremely proud of this team," said Klinsmann following the game, his wisps of blond hair flattened from whatever had flowed over them. "It means a lot to me, like it means to all of us. It's a special moment when you qualify for a World Cup and they really, really deserved it."
"Now the players know it only goes through hard work, it only goes through a lot of effort," Klinsmann said. "Certain things where maybe two years ago they wondered, 'What is this all about?' now it's just normal."
The changes in the end, were for the better. "Any time you have a new coach there's a learning curve," said Donovan. "The best thing he's done is create lots of competition and so every time you step on the field you have to perform or you're not going to step on the field the next time."
And the old moxie, that staple of the US national team, was retained. "We've answered the bell a bunch of times," said goalkeeper Tim Howard. "I think that's part of this group's resiliency."
Jermaine Jones left the stadium toting a big American flag on a pole, clutching two beers and his purse. Around his neck he wore bulky headphones and the commemorative scarf that had been handed out to those in attendance. "Land of the Free," it read.
The smaller American flag he'd tied around his jeans below his left knee became visible only as he sauntered off, bound for Brazil.
Not long behind him was Omar Gonzalez, who revealed the plans for later: "We're gonna go drink some more."