When it comes to home World Cup qualifiers, there is little doubt that the U.S. Men’s National Team has Mexico's number.
Actually, make that two numbers – two and zero – as in the final score of four important confrontations between those two archrivals, 2-0 in favor of the United States, over the past dozen years.
That tradition was established on a frigid, mid-winter night on Feb. 28, 2001, in Columbus, Ohio.
Looking to get home-field advantage and a leg up against the Mexicans in the opening home World Cup qualifying match of the CONCACAF Hexagonal, U.S. Soccer decided to host their rivals in a northern city. Officials hoped the cold would play a factor in the match as much as the pro-American crowd at Columbus Crew Stadium.
"It was one of those games where we finally started to turn things around," said U.S. midfielder Earnie Stewart, who scored the second goal that night. "All of a sudden we went to a new phase. When we played at home against Mexico, we pretty much took over and started winning those games. Columbus was one of those first games where we actually had the attitude that we were playing at home and we could definitely win this game."
The strategy worked to perfection as the Americans upended El Tri in a World Cup qualifier for the first time in two decades. The Americans had entered the confrontation with a 2-15-2 record against Mexico in 19 previous qualifiers.
Columbus Crew Stadium was the first of Major League Soccer's specific-soccer stadia with a partisan capacity crowd of 24,624 rooting on their heroes.
"We played Mexico at the L.A. Coliseum. We played Mexico in L.A. at the Rose Bowl," said Josh Wolff, who came off the bench to score the first goal and create the second. "You're getting peppered. It was passionate. There was a lot of energy and a lot of animosity. It was the first time we had a crowd that embraced us, that was energized."
No one could have predicted the weather weeks in advance in the central-Ohio city. The temperature was 29 degrees at game time, although by the time referee Rodolfo Sibrian of El Salvador called the match, the thermometer read 20 degrees.
"It was freezing," said Wolff. "We had the big thick heavy parkas. I remember Ante [Razov] coming onto the field. He was still in his parka even though he was warming up. It was the first time we could actually turn the tables a little bit on Mexico to some degree, take them out of the warm elements and cozy confines of a pro-Mexican crowd. It worked for us then and we still utilize some of those things today. It was quite a night."
The hosts endured a rough start as they suffered two key losses in the first half. Striker Brian McBride left the game in the 15th minute due to a swollen left eye after a head collision with Mexican defender Rafa Marquez four minutes prior. Midfielder and captain Claudio Reyna was taken out of the match with a groin strain in the 42nd minute. In their place came two players with a minimal amount of international experience -- Wolff and Clint Mathis, respectively.
"I don't think we thought about it," said Stewart. "That happens in soccer, where one person gets injured and the next one has to play. I don't think we as a team ever looked at it like all of a sudden we're missing players and we can't win this game anymore. Both substitutes came on and did fantastic."
The U.S. did not miss a beat. Quite appropriately, Mathis and Wolff, longtime friends while growing up in Georgia, teamed up for the first goal. Mathis sent a looping pass down the middle to the streaking Wolff. Goalkeeper Jorge Campos, known for his forays out of the net, could not stop Wolff, who knocked the ball into an open net in the 47th minute.
"Their line was high and I just tried to curl a run to stay onside and got into a footrace," said Wolff. "They stepped out little bit and I was trying to go in the other direction. Jorge came out of the box and we met it at the same time. It was probably a little fortunate that the ball kicked through for me. It was just a matter of rolling it into the goal."
After goalkeeper Brad Friedel preserved the lead with point-blank save on Francisco Palencia in the 69th minute, Wolff turned playmaker. He beat Mexicans Claudio Suarez and Alberto Macias in the right corner and raced along the end line before pushing a pass in front of the net to Stewart, who finished from nine yards in the 87th minute.
"It's late in the game and I’m trying to kill time," said Wolff. "I think there were two guys on my back. I was almost trying to flick it through the legs between them. If it doesn't work out, maybe I could get a throw-in or a corner out of it. It worked out pretty well. At that point I had Earnie and Clint crashing the goal. Luckily, the ball found one of them."
That first 2-0 result established the U.S.'s dominance of El Tri on American soil and in neutral venues.
"We as a team started to realize the things we were good at," Stewart said. "As long as we could keep up those things we did well and were capable of doing, we could win a lot of games, even against Mexico or whoever the teams were.”