The 2-0 win against Mexico on Feb. 28, 2001, brought out the best in Columbus and proved what many had already suspected – the compass measuring the advantage in the U.S. – Mexico rivalry had clearly started pointing north …
The temperature on the field level thermometer read 29 degrees when referee Rodolfo Sibrian blew the whistle that commenced the first match of final round qualifying for United States and Mexico on the road to the 2002 FIFA World Cup. But the contest to win this game had started months before, beginning with the selection of Columbus Crew Stadium as the site of the showdown. Located in the heart of Middle America, the first soccer-specific venue built in the U.S. promised to provide the national team advantages that they previously never held – a great field in an imposing climate, and a genuine pro-U.S. crowd.
“Wherever you choose to play Mexico, it's always a challenge to create a home-field advantage,” said former U.S. assistant coach Dave Sarachan, now the associate head coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy. “Columbus was the first one the list from the standpoint of being a quality stadium with a good surface, and a climate that was not conducive to Mexico's liking.”
Legendary midfielder Cobi Jones had been part of plenty of encounters with Mexico on U.S. soil where the welcome mat was laid out in front of the wrong locker room, so the chance to be in a place where the crowd had their backs was a welcome change.
“Every country in the world tries to take advantage of what they have. If we can go to Middle America where we can have the majority of fans cheering for the U.S. and make it uncomfortable for the Mexican team - or any team - we're going to do that. I'm happy to say that Columbus is one of the better spots for us to do that.”
With tickets selling out as fast as the mercury dropped at sunset, the buildup to the match had reached epic portions. The Mexican press dubbed the match the ‘Guerra Fria’ [Cold War], in anticipation of both the weather and the intensity on the field. U.S. defender Tony Sanneh saw both factors at work in the minutes leading up to kickoff, when the Mexican team refused to leave their locker room for warm-ups.
“It was a little bit strange,” said Sanneh. “We just laughed it off and knew how much colder they would be when the finally came out. To be honest, as cold as it was, the weather really wasn’t a factor. Our perseverance and the crowd is what really kept us going. It was a chippy game, like the old Bulls-Pistons. You have to beat up the big brother on the block to let them know you belong there. We weren't backing down. They were going to make us earn it, and we did.”
Sarachan felt the Mexicans absence on the field prior to the game hinted at what was to come.
“When they didn't come out for warm-ups, part of us thought it was a psychological ploy, but then we figured that we had the upper hand, that already in their heads the weather was having an influence on their mentality. I do think that was a strong positive."
Physical bordering on chippy, the first half ended without a goal on the scoreboard, but with two significant losses for the United States. Brian McBride had his eye swollen shut after banging heads and was forced out in the first 15 minutes, then team captain Claudio Reyna pulled up with a hamstring strain. Just like that, two key players in the U.S. attack were out of action. But as with any good team, character and depth are major ingredients, and the addition of Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis would prove to be a blessing in disguise.
“Both injuries to very key players could throw a team into a fit, but we didn't really miss much of a beat,” recalled Sarachan. “At that time, the confidence in our whole group was so strong that we just carried on. There’s no doubt that the crowd was a big part of that.”
The game took a major swing just after halftime when Clint Mathis sprung Josh Wolff on a breakaway, the forward negotiating around Jorge Campos and slotting home an empty netter to put the U.S. up 1-0 in the 47th minute. Wolff pulled a bit of magic on his own to put the finishing touch on the win, escaping from two Mexican defenders before setting up an unmarked Earnie Stewart to give the U.S. a now familiar 2-0 scoreline against Mexico. That two role players in Wolff and Mathis made such a big impact only proved to Jones lessons learned during a long career of playing in big matches.
“It just shows that you always have to be ready because you never know. After McBride gets hurt, Josh gets called on and winds up with a goal and an assist. It was a huge game for all of us to significantly beat Mexico and start off the final round in great fashion. The fans were such a huge part of it.”
The U.S. has gone on to dominate Mexico on home soil, the unbeaten run now a decade long. Did the win in Columbus on that frigid day turn the tides, or were the wheels already in motion?
“It definitely made sure that we knew we weren't going to lose at home,” said Sanneh. “Mexico was a strong team at the time, and it proved we could play with anybody.”
For Jones, the win had a far more concrete effect.
“Even before then we knew we could beat Mexico,” he said. By that time we were closing the gap. That game in particular was a great confidence booster as far as going to into the World Cup. As far as I’m concerned, it was a precursor for what happened in Korea. We beat them 2-0 at home in Columbus, then beat them 2-0 in Jeonju in the Round of 16.”