THE COLUMBUS TRADITION
The United States once again defeated Mexico again in Columbus by the famous "dos a cero" scoreline. Whether that familiar final outcome is fate or coincidence, it is indisputable the qualifier against Mexico in Columbus has meaning unlike any other.
The U.S national team, of course, has been around for a long, long time and US Soccer is right to proudly celebrate its centennial. The modern version of the team, however, is new to the international arena beginning with Olympic qualifying in 1988, followed by Caligiuri's goal to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, and, of course, hosting the tournament in 1994. Prior to that, it was a lost era for the U.S team where no one cared about the team or the sport since the Great Depression.
With the growing relevance of the U.S team in the 1990's and the advent of MLS in 1996, the sport was still trying to gain a foothold and the survival of MLS was always a question. A domestic league that was oriented on the American player (unlike the original NASL) was necessary for the sport and the national team to have a future.
1998 marked the first true turning point for the league when construction began for Columbus Crew Stadium which opened in 1999. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the sport would be different had Lamar Hunt not shown the financial risk to undertake construction. The league at the time was losing incredible amounts of money but construction of a stadium showed that someone with credibility had the confidence and vision that the team and the league would be a permanent fixture in the crowded American sports landscape. The league continued to struggle in the years after Crew stadium but there is no doubt it was a turning point.
In the years that followed, more soccer-specific-stadiums continued to be built. The Home Depot Center, Toyota Park, Dick's Sporting Good Park, BMO Field, Pizza Hut Park, all the way through to the recent gems of PPL Park, BBVA Compass Stadium, Red Bull Arena and Sporting Park. All of the subsequent are far superior to Crew Stadium in terms of quality. The last four compare well with quality stadiums in Europe. But no matter how nice these new stadiums continue to get, they will never be as important as the one built in Columbus.
But as with anything, the first link of a chain is the most important. If MLS continued to play in NFL stadiums, it would have failed shortly after the millennium. That is why Crew Stadium should be dear to U.S hearts. It started a chain of events that would provide the foundation for survival and growth of the U.S domestic league. Without it, we may have reverted back to the dark ages when American soccer was the equivalent of American rugby. None of the other soccer stadiums in the US can boast that.
It is only fitting that the U.S national team also found a way to feed off Crew Stadium. The home qualifier against Mexico in the hexagonal provided such an opportunity. The last time the home Mexico qualifier was played outside of Columbus was in 1997 when it was at the old Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts. It was a well-played game that ended in 2-2 but Crew Stadium proved it offered more.
When Columbus was awarded its first Mexico game for the opening round of the Hexagonal in 2001, it was another turning point for the sport. The U.S - Mexico rivalry has been around for a long time but Crew Stadium offered something that was unthinkable to U. S fans and likely US Soccer: a home field advantage against its archrival to the South.
Every US fan in 2001 remembers the game. It was played in freezing temperatures in front of a raucous pro-American crowd. Against Mexico, that was simply unheard of at the time. Prior to that, most games against Mexico might as well have been played in Mexico.
Things changed that night. For once the U.S had an imposing fortress. Mexico had the historic Azteca, the site where Pele and Maradona lifted the World Cup. But the U.S had Columbus. It's quite a mismatch comparing the venues in terms of their respective sizes and histories but the U.S team has defended Crew Stadium successfully now for over a decade. History and tradition doesn't happen overnight and with each memorable victory, another layer is created and celebrated. It's been fun to watch it grow from the beginning and watch newer fans join in..
American soccer does not have many traditions but the U.S against Mexico is one that should be embraced and carried into the future. Seattle and Kansas City both have passionate fans and would likely do an outstanding job hosting the Mexico game but U.S Soccer should celebrate its past and the only place to do that is where the rivalry grew to unprecedented levels.
The Mexico qualifier in Columbus signifies much more than just a game. It is the celebration of the growth of a sport and a place where the sport's future turned for the better, not just in one city, but throughout the whole country. It's a way of embracing the most high profile game the U.S plays every World Cup cycle at a place that unifies the fan base in the heartland of the country.
Tuesday's night's win may have been the finest chapter in the history of the stadium. It showed all that the sport could be in the United States. Never before had a U.S game enjoyed a more high profile build up in the national media. The U.S was on the verge of qualifying and Mexico was in danger. The demand for tickets was at an all-time high, the largest ever American supporters group was assembled, and green jerseys were at their lowest levels ever for a game in the United States.
Expectations were high but were easily surpassed yet again at Columbus. The venue, the teams, and the result served as a reminder of how far the sport has come in this country and it did so at a place where the ascendancy began. It is hard to imagine any fan left there without already anticipating the next installment in 2017.