How did Columbus become the unofficial home of U.S. Soccer?
COLUMBUS, Ohio – There is no official national stadium in the United States, but a case can be made that American soccer – or at least its most popular team – does have a spiritual home.
Multiple markets, from Portland to St. Louis and from L.A. to D.C., have a claim. When the chips are down, however, the U.S. relies on Columbus, the unexpected – and now unquestioned – home of the national team's most high-profile game.
On Tuesday evening, the nation’s 32nd-largest metropolitan area will play host to the quadrennial U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier for the fourth consecutive time.
“I think we would sell out this game anywhere in the United States,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. Anywhere. He could choose from among 26 American arenas that hold more than 80,000 fans. The magnitude of such an event, not to mention the revenue, would be enormous. But on Tuesday, the rivals will battle for three precious points inside Crew Stadium, a relatively bare-bones facility that seats around 25,000. Its ghosts more than make up for its lack of grandeur.
“Once we won that first game there [in 2001], it became a place with a little bit of lore,” Gulati told SI.com. “And whether it’s psychological or superstition or whatever you want to call it, we were successful in that first game [against Mexico] so we went again. Then we went again.”
And now, U.S.-Mexico has become an integral part of the region’s sporting fabric. Linda Logan, the executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, likened Crew Stadium’s “lore” to that of Fenway Park or Augusta National and claimed the qualifier -- which results in an injection of around $3-$4 million to the local economy -- now transcends the sport.
“It’s not just about being a soccer fan. It’s about being patriotic,” she said.
Columbus Crew president and GM Mark McCullers, who oversaw construction of the stadium before moving into the club’s front office, said the game is a “huge deal” for the city.
“We roll out the red carpet. The players, the sponsors, the media and everybody who comes to Columbus just gets a really big dose of Midwestern hospitality,” he said. “Now I think there’s a sense of, you better come up with a really good reason to not play Mexico in Columbus. If you don’t and it doesn’t go well, people aren’t going to be happy.”
The cover of the newest issue of Columbus Alive, a weekly lifestyle paper, summed it up. A bright red, white and blue graphic features Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, the USSF shield and a bold “WELCOME HOME” that blends into the star-spangled state flag.
"We have history here. For soccer in our country, that's not always the case. Soccer is still in its growing stages. For us to feel like we walk into a stadium and there's history is a special feeling,” the injured Bradley told reporters on Tuesday. “The people here in Columbus and this part of the United States love soccer. They love our team. They love the United States. When we come here, when we step out onto this field, there's an overwhelming feeling of American support.”
Throughout the 20th century, the notion of a home-field advantage was a foreign one for the national team. Qualifiers typically were played in smaller facilities in places like Southern California or St. Louis or, in the late 1990s, cavernous football stadiums that provided little in the way of atmosphere.
Completed in 1999 and financed by legendary soccer backer Lamar Hunt, Crew Stadium changed everything.
“As we built the stadium we in the back of our minds that we wanted to attract other events,” said Clark Hunt, who succeeded his late father as head of Hunt Sports Group. “Those could have been high school football games, certain national team games, both men’s and women’s. I don’t think we anticipated that it would become such an important home for the U.S. in terms of World Cup qualifying. Certainly historically, I think the glamor games did go to the more high-profile sites. But U.S. Soccer became very focused on the importance of winning its qualifiers, especially against Mexico, and they were looking for a location where they could count on a pro U.S. crowd.”
In October 2000, Crew Stadium hosted a scoreless draw between the U.S. and Costa Rica, both of which advanced the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying competition the following year. The crowd was pro-U.S. and the stadium, still the country’s only soccer-specific venue, was sold out. “The wheels started turning,” McCullers recalled.
“Bruce [Arena] was the coach at the time and the coach is an integral part of this decision,” he said. “Bruce probably deserves some credit for saying, ‘I think this is the way we can get a competitive advantage against Mexico, by playing in a smaller stadium, a Midwest market and a passionate crowd. And oh yeah, by the way, why don’t we play in Columbus in February, when it’s going to be freezing cold, and provide ourselves even a further competitive advantage and get into the heads of the Mexicans?”
The Mexican press would call it “La Guerra Fria”, or “The Cold War”. The 2001 Hexagonal opened in freezing central Ohio, where the U.S. won, 2-0, on goals by Josh Wolff and Earnie Stewart. It marked only the third time in nearly 70 years that the Americans beat El Tri by multiple goals in official competition.
The visitors were disoriented before the match kicked off.
“The Mexican team didn’t even come out of the locker room to warm up, which I’ve never seen. I’ve never seen a team in any sport ever do that,” Hunt told SI.com.
“It helped create a psychological advantage that really just worked,” McCullers added.
Arena’s team went on to beat Mexico again at the World Cup in 2002, and three years later the U.S. returned to Crew Stadium for the qualifying encore. The only other soccer-specific option at that time was The Home Depot Center (now StubHub Center), and there was no way the U.S. was going to challenge Mexico in L.A. So it was back to Columbus, where the hosts prevailed, 2-0, once again.
There were five soccer stadiums available in 2009. But by then, home-field advantage was established.
“There was a headline in Mexico City -- ‘Casa del Terror’ -- and that was before they played the game,” said Hunt, who sold the Crew this summer to San Francisco-based investor Anthony Precourt. “It showed how much they feared Crew Stadium.”
Cue a third consecutive 2-0 win. Bradley tallied both goals.
Heading into Tuesday’s match, the U.S. is 6-0-3 overall inside the humble stadium located on the Ohio State Fairgrounds. That is by far its best record at any single facility. Three more points would almost guarantee a spot at the 2014 World Cup. A victory Tuesday plus a Honduras win or tie against Panama would clinch it.
If that happens, expect a return engagement in 2017.
“Somebody at some point may decide that U.S.-Mexico is not going to be played in Columbus, but if we have always won there that’s a pretty big decision, a pretty risky decision,” Gulati said.
There will be no shortage of suitors. “Everyone would love to host this game,” Gulati said. But U.S. Soccer continues to believe that playing must-win matches in smaller stadiums helps ensure a supportive, partisan crowd. It’s happy to forego revenue in exchange for points. A significant percentage of available seats can be sold before the general public even gets a crack by offering priority access to MLS season ticket holders and members of the USSF’s supporters club. On Tuesday, a record 9,000 seats -- more than one-third of the stadium -- will be filled by the latter.
The number of facilities that fit the bill is growing, but none will be able to match Crew Stadium’s track record. An executive with an MLS club that has lobbied U.S. Soccer for multiple World Cup qualifiers told SI.com that it was considered a “foregone conclusion” that Columbus would host U.S.-Mexico this year. Several sources agreed that only a heavy loss on Tuesday might prompt a change.
MLS clubs don’t expect to turn much of a profit when they host a qualifier. It is a USSF event. In exchange for handing over its stadium and helping out with sales, operations and promotion, the MLS team earns a valuable opportunity to showcase itself and its city on the world stage. That visibility has meant an awful lot to Columbus, which “struggles with our image,” according to Logan.
“The last thing we are is a one-sport city,” she said, referring to the popular college football team that plays about two miles west of the Fairgrounds.
She’s right. This week it has become a gathering place for American soccer fans. There were events and parties across Columbus on Monday night, organized by both the USSF and the supporters groups. McCullers said tickets were purchased by people from 49 states and Washington D.C. U.S.-Mexico has become the biggest event in the American game in part because of the success enjoyed at Crew Stadium. The match, the venue and a winning tradition now are almost inextricably linked.
“It’s a tradition now in U.S. soccer for this match to be played in Columbus,” McCullers said. “When you talk about brand and identity, this is part of Columbus’ identity. It’s a part of our city’s identity to be the home of the U.S. men’s national team. And it’s funny, we had a full staff meeting on Friday and we were talking about this idea, about which city can claim to be the capital of American soccer. And we said, ‘They can say it all day long, but we live it. We get to live it. We’re going to live it on Tuesday.’”