Columbus crucial again as U.S. qualifies for 2014 World Cup
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was a special scene on the field here after the U.S. beat Mexico again by the same 2-0 score that has happened four times now against the Mexicans in Crew Stadium during World Cup qualifiers. A thousand or so hardcore fans stayed in the stadium as the videoboard showed the Honduras-Panama game that would decide if the U.S. would clinch a World Cup berth on Tuesday.
A couple U.S. players milled about on the field. Former player Frankie Hejduk, who might as well become the mayor of Columbus, helped pass the time by breakdancing on the field for the fans. And as the minutes wound down and the U.S.'s seventh straight World Cup berth approached, the chants rained down from the stands:
BLOW THE WHISTLE! BLOW THE WHISTLE! BLOW THE WHISTLE!
When it finally blew, when the U.S. had earned a golden ticket to Brazil and the greatest event in sports, the U.S. players emerged from the locker room and started spraying Champagne and beer over their beloved supporters and on each other. Just because you're expected to qualify for the World Cup doesn't mean you should take it for granted or diminish the achievement that comes with hard work over a period of two long years. More than 170 countries won't make it to Brazil 2014.
The United States will be there.
That qualification happened against Mexico, the U.S.'s bitter archrival, only made it sweeter for the U.S. players and fans. That it happened in Columbus -- a pleasant Midwestern city that has become a house of horrors for Mexico -- makes it seem as though this patch of grass has acquired special powers. As sportswriters, we always try to find rational explanations for things that happen on the field, usually after the fact, which is always easier. But there are times when you just have to give some credit to the Columbus Mystique:
2001: USA 2, Mexico 0.
2005: USA 2, Mexico 0.
2009: USA 2, Mexico 0.
2013: USA 2, Mexico 0.
"The players know when they play in Columbus they have 100 percent support behind them," said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann after the game. "It carries them, gives them energy, gives them confidence. And the other thing is then your opponent hasn't won here and knows the difficult situation as well. It is a psychological game at the end of the day."
"I think you could feel it in the body language of the Mexican players once they didn't get a goal that they tried really hard for the first 25 minutes, then they got heavier and heavier," Klinsmann continued. "You could see that psychological load in their minds: They start to doubt themselves. The first touch was often off from players who usually have a fantastic first touch. There's absolutely a psychological element in place here in Columbus, and it's definitely on our side."
Klinsmann has never lost to Mexico. Not as a player. Not as a coach. And he knows that for all the talent the Mexicans have, their Achilles heel is their mentality, a tendency to crumble under pressure. Columbus and dos a cero have helped make that happen, too. All that history that helps the U.S. here? It's a weight on El Tri's shoulders, and the weight keeps getting heavier.
"They [Mexico] looked really timid and shy throughout," said Landon Donovan, whose goal and assist continued his 2013 resurgence. "I've never seen a Mexico team look that way, and when we scored the goal I think it was pretty clear that either we were going to get a second or third, or it was going to end up 1-0. It was nice to be able to beat them."
After the U.S. broke a 0-0 deadlock with Eddie Johnson's header early in the second half, the U.S. players said they saw Mexico change on the field. "They started losing the ball, started kicking the ball out of bounds, not playing with much confidence," said U.S. captain Clint Dempsey. "They had that pressure on them, and when we scored it seemed like they didn't believe."
Having that belief is a big part of what Klinsmann has brought to this U.S. squad. I'll admit it: Before Klinsmann became the U.S. coach, I would hear him speak often of "team spirit," and it seemed like this new-agey, amorphous concept that didn't hold up under close examination. I didn't buy it. But it's hard not to believe in it now when you look at this U.S. team and see how it has banded together and responded to tough moments, whether it was taking semifinal-round qualification down to the final game or responding to a Hexagonal-opening loss to Honduras or bouncing back from a poor performance in the loss to Costa Rica on Friday.
"We've answered the bell a bunch of times," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who bounced back from a tough night in Costa Rica to make several sprawling saves against Mexico. For Howard, Columbus is just as much of a positive for the U.S. as it is a negative for Mexico at this point.
"This is a great crowd," he said of Columbus. "It's become its own monster. People want to come to Columbus and see the U.S. and Mexico. It's almost like the Mecca really for us. Because of the way results have gone the last four times, you almost feel like it's our destiny to win here."
History matters. And after Tuesday's epic night in Columbus, you can be sure we'll be back here in 2017 for another USA-Mexico qualifier.