A noob's guide to the fourth installment of the border war at Crew Stadium
The men's World Cup happens every four years (2014, 2018, 2022 and so on). So does the women's World Cup, usually the year after the men (2015, 2019, 2023). The following year, the summer Olympics usually happen, plus continental championships that have become almost as popular as the World Cup itself (2016, 2020, 2024 - you get it).
After all that comes a breather, a year bereft of international soccer holidays (2013, 2017, 2021). For sports fans in Columbus, though, those off-years are very much on-years.
Speaking of which: It's on.
Crew Stadium hosts a soccer match Tuesday between the United States and Mexico. It's part of the final round of qualifying for next year's World Cup in Brazil. This is the fourth straight time the U.S. and Mexico have faced off at Crew Stadium in this round, following 2-0 U.S. victories in 2001, 2005 and 2009. Winning "dos a cero" is as much a tradition as hosting the game here, see?
Columbus isn't guaranteed to host this match - the most important World Cup qualifier against our nation's fiercest rival - but U.S. Soccer keeps bringing it back here because the home-field advantage is palpable and the results don't lie.
That means ultras from around the country are pouring into Columbus this week to cheer on the Red, White and Blue. It means there will be quite a few Mexican fans in the mix too, despite U.S. Soccer's best efforts. It means there will be parties aplenty. And it means you've got some brushing up to do.
Here's a quick guide to help you understand.
What is this game, exactly?
The U.S. and Mexico are part of the region known as CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, whew!). The final round of World Cup qualifying pits the top six teams from CONCACAF against each other in a round-robin format, with each team facing each other at home and away. This round is sometimes referred to as the "Hexagonal." The top three teams advance to the World Cup.
What's at stake for these teams specifically?
At press time, the U.S. is sitting pretty atop the CONCACAF standings with a 4-1-1 record and 13 points. A win Friday at second-place Costa Rica could punch the Americans' ticket to a seventh straight World Cup, rendering the Mexico contest a matter of pride (and seeding!). If the U.S. can't win in Costa Rica - as tough a venue as any in the region - a win against Mexico will probably do the trick.
As for Mexico, they're in third place right now with a draw-heavy 1-0-5 record and 8 points, a record they can improve upon Friday when they host fourth-place Honduras in Mexico City, or by stealing points in Columbus. In other words, it's gut-check time. If they don't improve their form significantly, they could easily be surpassed by Honduras (7 points) or Panama (6 points) and find themselves on the outside looking in next summer.
Which players should I know?
Jozy Altidore, F: From potential-laden prospect to perpetual disappointment to budding superstar, Altidore's career arc has been up-and-down, but right now things are looking very up.
Michael Bradley, M: The steady, heady, strong midfielder is a stabilizing presence for the Americans who completes a remarkable percentage of his passes. Oh, and last time Mexico came to Crew Stadium, Bradley scored both U.S. goals.
Clint Dempsey, F: A World Cup hero and a reliable goal-scorer in the English Premier League, Dempsey (a.k.a Deuce) recently returned to MLS, where he got his start. In an early-round World Cup qualifier against Jamaica last year at Crew Stadium, Dempsey debuted the "Deuce face," a contorted facial expression that instantly became a meme.
Landon Donovan, F: Despite his reputation as a frail, whining quitter, Donovan is arguably the greatest men's soccer player in U.S. history. From World Cups to MLS Cups, when the pressure is on, he steps up.
Tim Howard, GK: Howard is a sensational goalie - tough, acrobatic, electric - and his praise for the Crew Stadium crowd last season was effusive. Expect him to be pumped.
Is there a Columbus connection?
Brad Evans, D: It's unclear whether the Seattle Sounders stalwart, a member of the Crew's 2008 MLS Cup championship team, will get on the pitch Tuesday. But if he does, expect massive applause and plenty of hardnosed hustle.