Josh Wolff seemed an unlikely hero for Columbus. The Stone Mountain, Ga., native had impressed at the 2000 Olympic Games and was just beginning to earn his stripes with full team. Having earned just four caps heading into the qualifier against Mexico, he nearly wasn’t selected for the 18-man game-day roster. His speed and quickness were the deciding factor according to U.S. coach Bruce Arena, and those traits were on full display when he picked up a goal and an assist in leading the U.S. to a 2-0 victory. Now 10 years down the road, ussoccer.com spoke with the D.C. United forward as he reflected back on the performance that day and what the result meant for the USA-Mexico rivalry.
ussoccer.com: Can you believe it’s been 10 years already?
Josh Wolff: “No I can’t. It’s certainly sad in the aspect that it’s 10 years down the road and my career has moved 10 years on, but it’s come a long way certainly from those days. U.S. Soccer has grown tremendously since then as well. It’s amazing how time flies. It’s still a memorable day, but it’s good to see where things are today with our sport in this country.”
ussoccer.com: It was the first game of the final round of qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The U.S. had just started to turn the corner in their meetings against Mexico. The game is set up in Columbus, Ohio, everyone knows it is going to be a cold day, but did you expect that type of atmosphere going into the game?
JW: “I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect. It was the first time we got Mexico on a real pro-American environment and that was certainly the beginning of a real movement in U.S. Soccer. Obviously we had a soccer specific stadium for us in Columbus and the atmosphere was great. It was loud, it was cold and it was certainly everything Mexico didn’t want. We came out and did the business, but it was a real turning point for us against Mexico and how those games had transpired from the years prior.”
ussoccer.com: A breakthrough came for you three minutes into the second half that led to your goal. It started as a bit of a counterattack and a really alert play from Clint Mathis to play the ball to you over the top. Can you take us through that play?
JW: “It was a bit of a broken play. Having known Clint and playing with him for a while, there was certainly an understanding between both of us as far as when plays turn over, if there is some space, to try and take advantage of it. Clint’s ball over the top was sensational and put their backs under pressure and the goalie Jorge Campos came up and tried to make a play on it. It was a bit of a foot race. We got on the end of it. I think two guys on the same page in a real tight moment allowed us to get behind them and get the goal that spurred us on.”
ussoccer.com: Did you see Campos coming, and did you think you were going to beat him to the ball?
JW: “Anytime a goalie comes out and it’s a foot race like that, if there is any kind of hesitancy, it plays into the attacking player’s advantage. I think that happened there as well. He did hesitate a bit and as he came it was going to be tight. We might have met the ball at the same time and fortunately it fell forward for me, and I just kind of had to roll it in. Again, a good play from Clint, putting the ball over the top. It was a timing situation that worked out well for us.”
ussoccer.com: That victory was part of a string of nearly 10 years where the United States went undefeated against Mexico at home. It was also the first time that the U.S. beat Mexico in a qualifier in 20 years. Looking back on it now, where do you think that game fits into the U.S. Soccer legacy?
JW: “It was the beginning of a shifting of the guards as far as our region and for qualifying. It’s something we’ve maintained and take great pride in as a country, as U.S. Soccer. Even though I’m not currently with the national team, those are the games that we look forward to watching, and as a player those are the games you look forward to being part of. It’s a good benchmark. It set the stage and helped us grow as a country and enhanced the rivalry to a new level.”