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Dec 18, 2008

Columbus the obvious choice to host Mexico

Columbus Crew Stadium is the meat and potatoes of American soccer grounds.

There isn't much in the way of ornamentation and fancy schmancy. Other soccer stadiums have sprouted majestically on the domestic scene, decorated with swell roofs, money-making luxury boxes, state-of-the-art video boards, etc. They even have splashy corporate names.

But good ol' Crew Stadium, the plow horse of domestic grounds, has something these increasingly cosmopolitan venues can't match: an inimitable legacy of achievement in the most important of World Cup qualifiers.

U.S. Soccer officials announced late Tuesday that the decidedly blue-collar Ohio facility, steeped in Americana if only for its location on the Ohio Expo Center and State Fairgrounds, will be the scene of the most important day in domestic soccer in 2009. On Feb. 11 the United States opens final-round qualifying against less-than-chummy rival Mexico.

Guerra Fria II, anybody?

Surely, some giddy Sam's Army vet is rushing at this very minute to score a new set of long johns for the occasion. It's sure to be another dandy, bitter cold weather notwithstanding.

The American players, some of whom grew up through frigid, northern winters, many of whom earn paychecks in cold, gray European climates, feel far more at home in the wintry conditions than their Mexican counterparts. Let the chants begin: "U-S-A, brrrr, U-S-A ..."

Plus, the relatively small capacity (22,500) allows U.S. Soccer tighter control over ticket sales.

U.S. World Cup qualifier
Feb. 11
U.S. vs. Mexico
Columbus Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

All of which begs the question: Why would anywhere else have even been considered? This game needed to be at Crew Stadium all along. The United States is a healthy 4-0-3 overall and 3-0-2 in World Cup qualifiers at Crew Stadium.

More to the point, Crew Stadium is the historic site of two landmark U.S. qualifying triumphs. Who could forget the so-called Guerra Fria (Cold War)? That was the Mexican media moniker as Bruce Arena's national team cracked El Tri in Columbus on Feb. 28, 2001. The final U.S. push into World Cup 2002 began that night with a 2-0 win in conditions most excellent for a polar bear.

Of course, temperatures in the high 20s and chances of snow didn't come close to stifling the memorable U.S. fan frenzy. Goals by Josh Wolff and Earnie Stewart provided ample kindling to ignite fans' internal furnaces.

Conditions were more forgiving four years later on Sept. 3, 2005, when goals by Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley claimed the day, clinching a fifth consecutive World Cup berth for the United States.

The 2005 triumph was more important symbolically as the United States' dominance in the rivalry swelled. The Americans are 8-0-2 at home against Mexico since 2000, with a 17-3 scoring margin.

So, one school of thought says the American psychological edge over Mexico has advanced to the point where site selection is less relevant. But why take a chance on such an important match? This will be the opening match of the Hexagonal, the somewhat clumsy banner for the final round of matches between the six CONCACAF qualifying survivors. The top three move on to World Cup South Africa 2010.

American chances of qualifying are strong. Still, lose at home right off the bat and the pressure begins building exponentially. Remember, Arena warned that it will happen someday: The Americans will fail to qualify for a World Cup. Ask England, France and the Netherlands if it can't happen.

Every potential edge matters. So it seemed rather odd last week when reports surfaced that Salt Lake City and Seattle were on the table as potential U.S.-Mexico venues. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati had long ago ruled out venues in California and Texas, or anywhere else where fans of El Tri were sure to pack the joint. And the U.S. Soccer chief hinted strongly that climate -- i.e. the polar bear factor -- would weigh heavily in the selection.

So Salt Lake City did indeed seem to be in play. Arena raved about Utah four years ago when Kasey Keller heroically backstopped a 3-0 win over Costa Rica.

But Seattle? On artificial turf? That seemed as fishy as the famous Pike Market just down the way from Qwest Field. It smelled of what you call "leverage" in negotiations between U.S. Soccer officials and Crew Stadium executives, who surely knew that the Americans coveted their venue anew.

In a land still building its soccer history, Lamar Hunt's leap-of-faith venue, the first large-scale pro soccer grounds built here, already has its share of it. This has been the stage for gamesmanship schemes and shenanigans both individually and at organizational level in the increasingly storied U.S.-Mexico rivalry.

Anybody recall the orange ball stunt of 2001? U.S. Soccer officials sent the Mexican federation a case of orange Nike game balls in the run-up to Guerra Fria. In a "sporting gesture," they invited the Mexicans to practice with the orange balls -- you know, in case a snowy deluge created a whiteout at the Crew Stadium field.

This was the stadium where Oguchi Onyewu stood up, roughed up and famously stared down the increasingly hapless Jared Borgetti four years ago. Suffice to say, the Mexican striker won't remember Crew Stadium fondly. Meanwhile, Onyewu ensconced himself in the hearts of U.S. Soccer fans for the way he bullied and shut down Mexico's in-form striker -- the same way Mexico had bullied and often shut down the entire U.S. team so often in the 1990s and before.

The ripple effect of Onyewu's night can't be overestimated. Confidence means everything in sports at the highest level -- especially in matches wrapped in weapons-grade pressure.

Think of all the positive memory markers that already sweeten the frigid Columbus air. When U.S. players step off the bus at Crew Stadium next February, it will summon memories of doing the same thing, at exactly the same spot, four years ago. They'll probably stay at the same hotel. They'll dress in the same locker room. They'll walk the same path onto the field, etc.

And speaking of repeating previously successful patterns, the American delegation may at this very moment be crating up a box of orange balls to send south -- ya know, just in case the Mexicans have forgotten: Sometimes it snows in Ohio in the winter.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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