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U.S.-Mexico soccer game proves, again, there's no place like home

Posted by Justin McIntosh | September 11, 2013 01:37 PM


Highlights from last night's U.S.-Mexico soccer World Cup qualifer.

CHRIS DEVILLE:

I had finally stopped tingling when I woke up this morning, but when I went back and watched those highlights it kicked in again. Holding in my enthusiasm while seated in the press box, where reporters are expected to be impartial and respectable, proved especially difficult on a night like Tuesday, with so much past and future history in the balance. There was a tradition to be upheld: When the United States hosts Mexico at Crew Stadium as it has in each of the final World Cup qualifying rounds since 2001, the U.S. comes away with a 2-0 win every time. And there was opportunity to be seized: With a win and some help from Honduras in the night's other match, a seventh straight trip to the World Cup could be clinched.

You know who wasn't holding in their enthusiasm? Pretty much everyone outside that press box. There were a lot of memorable scenes on the pitch last night, from Tim Howard's flurry of bravura saves to Landon Donovan's nasty eye infection. But what I imagine will stick with me most from this match was the crowd. As someone who was present for the first three installments of "Dos a Cero," I don't think I've ever felt so much fire. 
 
You forget about that feeling when the only sporting events you've attended lately are Crew games during a dud season and early-season Ohio State football contests against patsies. It wasn't the loudest event I've ever been to, although it was most certainly loud. Nor was it the most populous; Crew Stadium's intimate size is part of this match's appeal. But there was a sheer intensity to it, an intangible combination of joy and fear and expectancy coursing through us all. "Electricity" doesn't do it justice.

How did that compare with the experience at the pregame festivities and watch parties you attended, Justin?

JUSTIN MCINTOSH:

Like many U.S. soccer fans, my pregame festivities started before game day. For me, it began Monday after work when I hit up The Bluestone for U.S. Soccer's happy hour/pep rally. I didn't stick around the entire evening (players and coaches were to appear around 8) because I wanted to scope out some other parties and little was actually going in the interim besides fans hounding Frankie for pictures and drinking. Plenty of drinking. Which, you know, drinking is awesome, but I needed to bike across town to make it to Hendoc's for the Hudson Street Hooligans' party. 

When I got to Hendoc's around 6 or 6:30, the party scene was much smaller compared to The Bluestone, obviously. But I'm glad I went. I met Matt from Colorado, who arrived in America's Soccer Mecca on Saturday and had pretty much been drinking and site-seeing since (he loved Columbus). I also met Nate, a Crew fan who, if I remember correctly, drove three days straight to get to Columbus for the game. I sat in on the local Crew podcast Massive Report, which was hosted by Matt Goshert, Chris LaMacchia and Justin Bell, who designed our cover for this week's issue along with, much more impressively, the massive banners on display at the stadium at the beginning of the game. (I wasn't able to see the displays well from my seat in the Nordecke and I understand the press was seated directly behind the main one on the stage, so I'm sure you didn't either. Maybe a reader can help us out with a quality pic?) By the time I left Hendoc's around 8 to head home for dinner, bands were finally playing outside and the party was bumping in earnest (can parties bump earnestly?). I didn't make it to 4th St. Bar for the American Outlaws party Monday, but I was hoping to do so Tuesday. 

... And that didn't happen. It wouldn't be a U.S.-Mexico game without a 2-0 scoreline, but also without some bizarre Ohio weather. Tuesday didn't disappoint on either front (weather pun!). With temperatures lingering above 90 for much of the day, my friend Mr. Jones, my brother-in-law Adam and I opted to stick to some good ol' American porch-drinking for about two hours mid-afternoon instead of biking to 4th St. Bar and being roasted alive under the scorching sun while waiting in long lines for overpriced beer. After a beer or two, it was off to the stadium.

 
Mr. Jones walking to Crew Stadium.

Aside from trying to avoid massive crowds, long lines and the sun, we also figured the atmosphere at the stadium would be badass. We were wrong. Unless you love corporate swill, listening to a street team/marketing/hype professional talk incessantly on a microphone (seriously, would she ever shut up?), you were a kid who loved kicking a ball into a hole or you reallywanted to meet Tony Meola, Brian McBride and other former U.S. soccer players, then the tailgating atmosphere was lame. U.S. Soccer's tailgate "party" took up a large block of prime tailgating real estate and in essence, it kept fans in the parking lot from lingering in one central spot like they did at last year's U.S.-Jamaica game. Then again, that tailgating party was packed mostly because local supporters groups threw a party with American Outlaws in which copious amounts of beer were given away for free. Despite the lack of free beer, though, tailgating with friends before the biggest U.S. soccer game of the year wasn't a bad way to spend an hour or two. And it was an hour or two, because once the cellphone clock struck 7, the line to get into Crew Stadium had log-jammed back to our tailgate.


Excuse the poor iPhone picture, but this was what the front of the line looked like leading into Crew Stadium.

So we loaded up an extra beer (and water -- responsibility!) for the wait and, well, waited. For 45 minutes. And then we were in. And then it was on. All that pent up energy burst out and random U.S.A.! chants erupted. I grabbed one of the free scarves and woozily made my way to the Nordecke, drunk with passion and expectation. Ready for anything, but with one firm hope in mind: a 2-0 scoreline. Which, seriously? How does this keep happening? Do you believe in the Columbus mystique? 

CHRIS:

I don't know how anybody could not believe in the Columbus mystique at this point. Mexico certainly seems to believe in it. From the beginning, El Tri was gunning for the U.S. goal with the kind of desperation usually reserved for the waning minutes of a losing cause. They threw everything they had at the Americans. It was like they believed they had to sneak one in the net as soon as possible, lest they be swept under by the current of history. 

They didn't, so they were. I was amazed the U.S. weathered a first half that was almost entirely Mexico's show. Maybe I shouldn't have been amazed; the Yanks have Tim Howard at their backs. Besides being one of the best goalies in the world, Howard clearly believes in the Columbus mystique too. He's doled out some of the most vociferous praise for the Crew Stadium crowd; after last year's early qualifier against Jamaica, when he called Columbus "the one real, true home-field advantage we have in America." Howard was protecting his goalmouth like a man who both understood the weight of the circumstances and felt buoyed by 24,000 supporters eager to help him shoulder that weight. The value of Donovan's goal and assist can't be understated, but Howard has to be the man of the match, agreed?

Or was that Clint Dempsey, who assisted Donovan's goal to put the U.S. up 2-0 then shanked a penalty kick in stoppage time to preserve the "dos a cero" tradition? That had to be intentional, right? Keeping up that uniform 2-0 scoreline keeps the mystique alive even more than a technically more dominant 3-0 win would. I know the sportswriters around me were rejoicing when they didn't have to furiously redraft their stories and discard their "Dos a Cero" puns, at least.

Whose performance stood out to you, Justin? And can you foresee a scenario where this match doesn't come back to Columbus in 2017?

JUSTIN:

Honestly? This is cliche, but I'd say the fans.


Seriously. Look at this madness.

That's sort of a cop-out because I can't pick a player. The Nordecke isn't the best place to watch and understand the action on the field, and with all the hoopla around me, I was also largely distracted. From the dude in front of me who sloppily fell over -- no kidding -- five times in the first 15 minutes and whom Mr. Jones and I had to help prop up, to the rows of fans behind me who wouldn't clap or cheer despite my attempts at leading them on, I'm sure I missed a lot. (I'm definitely looking forward to re-watching the game tonight.)

Despite those things and even if American Outlaws' attempts at installing capos (glorified cheerleaders with microphones meant to lead large crowds in chants) around the stadium was largely misguided and a failure, the crowd was as engaged as any. As you said earlier, it wasn't the loudest or largest crowd I've witnessed, but it was electric, and it was a particular joy to experience the ebb and flow of that passion. A nervous energy pulsated throughout the first half as the Mexicans surged toward the north end goal. It crested early when DeMarcus Beasley almost scored an own goal and I felt it continued through the entire first half. Mr. Jones expressed worry at halftime that it'd end Cero a Cero. 

When the teams came out for the second half, the home side and fans shined as bright as a Mexican sunrise. The capos were essentially displaced by the crowd with impromptu chants that reflected the game's events ("Dos a Cero!" and "You're Not Going to Brazil!" and, directed to both Mexico and Seattle Sounders fans who were particularly arrogant and disrespectful about Columbus hosting this game, "This is Our House!"), and I was locked in. The idea of being a soccer "supporter" instead of simply a "fan" was seared in my mind as the crowd urged the U.S. players on for a second goal after Eddie Johnson put the team up 1-0. Then, when Dempsey missed his PK and the crowd erupted with cheers because, in this case, 2-0 > 3-0. We helped make this happen, just as much as the players. I believe it. I know it. I lived it.


This was my view right after the U.S. went up 2-0.

By the end of the night, my shirt was soaked with beer and sweat, my voice was hoarse, my head foggy and swirling with excitement. Mr. Jones and I walked back to my house, holding up our scarves and chanting "U.S.A.!" the entire time. We looked like fools, I'm sure, but no one cared. Cars honked their support, the night's warmth and silence eventually wrapped around us, welcoming us back to the land of reality and wives and jobs that waited for us in the morning. We lingered on my porch, back to where we began, not wanting the night to end, reminiscing about our experience. Mr. Jones said it was one of the best sports experiences of his life. I agreed and slowly we said our goodbyes. I showered, the chants of past glories resounding in my head, and slipped in bed. I slept soundly and dreamed of soccer all night. It was perfect. I woke up this morning, eager for 2017, when this game returns. Because this game won't be anywhere else. It can't. We are Columbus, U.S. soccer's home. We know it now more than ever, and on this day, it feels good to be home.

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