By Tom Dunmore – CHICAGO, IL (Mar 13, 2013) US Soccer Players - Columbus Crew President Mark McCullers said last week on the MLS team’s official website that “I can’t think of one single reason we would not be named,” referring to the venue choice US Soccer has yet to confirm for its World Cup qualifier with Mexico in September.
This week, McCullers again suggested Columbus’ Crew Stadium was the frontrunner to host the critical game, but let out a touch of nervousness in his update on the situation. “I would expect an announcement soon but I also would have hoped to have announced by now,” McCullers told the Columbus Dispatch. “We are pushing as hard as we can and remain confident that we will host the match.”
McCullers’ confidence comes from the US National Team’s superb record at Crew Stadium. The US has gone 6-0-3, including five wins and two draws in seven World Cup qualifiers in Columbus. That includes 2-0 wins over Mexico in three consecutive final rounds of World Cup qualifying, in 2001, 2005 and 2009. For good competitive reasons, then, McCullers believes the US should continue to play critical games against Mexico at Crew Stadium.
There are reasons why they wouldn’t. Since the US began playing in Columbus in 2001, several new soccer-specific-stadiums have opened. One in particular, Sporting KC’s Sporting Park, might well offer a similar genuine home advantage with US National Team fans packing a stadium that can generate far more revenue and boast more luxurious facilities than the relatively spartan Crew Stadium can offer.
Still, breaking the streak the US enjoys in Columbus would seem like a foolhardy decision. Which raises the question: how exceptional is Crew Stadium in providing a home advantage for the US in World Cup qualifiers against Mexico? Let’s take a look historically.
The US National Team did not play its first World Cup qualifier on American soil until 1957, even though the team had already participated in three World Cup finals. The US accepted an invitation for the inaugural 1930 tournament in Uruguay. In 1934, the US beat Mexico in a one-game qualifier in Rome only days before the World Cup began. The US did not enter the 1938 World Cup.
For the 1950 World Cup, the US qualified, but via a three-team competition with Cuba and Mexico held exclusively in Mexico City. The US finished second, qualifying alongside the host nation. In 1954, the US failed to qualify for the World Cup, playing all its qualifying games away from home in Haiti and Mexico. In January 1953, the US agreed to play its “home” qualifier against Mexico in Mexico City, for “climatic reasons.” The US similarly agreed to play its other qualifier against Haiti in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Finally, in 1957, the US hosted a World Cup qualifier. It was against Mexico, and it wasn’t pretty. For the first time, the chain of events that would lead to key qualifiers against Mexico moving to Ohio rather than California was set in motion.
The US faced Mexico in two qualifiers in the 1958 World Cup qualifying cycle. The first in Mexico City on April 7, 1957 ended in a 6-0 loss with the US team meeting each other for the first time in their hotel just a couple of days before the game.
According to Tony Cirino’s book US Soccer Vs The World, after that game the United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA) President J. Edward Sullivan promised “it will be different in Los Angeles,” referring to the return game scheduled to take place at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach three weeks later.
It was different, but not by much. The US lost 7-2. Just as distressingly, there was little home field advantage to enjoy. Cirino writes that “The 12,500 spectators were mostly Latin Americans, who had come to see famous players Carbajal and Reyes in action. They rooted for the Mexican team during the entire game.”
The Los Angeles crowd applauded enthusiastically at the end as the beaten US team trudged off the field.
Four years later, the USSFA ignored the lesson of 1958 World Cup qualifying, once again staging a game in Los Angeles for the 1962 World Cup qualifying cycle. This time, though, things went much better, in a surprising turn of events at LA’s Wrigley Field on November 6, 1960. Mexico led 3-0 by halftime, but apparently became overconfident, and conceded three times in the second half for a 3-3 draw. The Los Angeles Times called it “the biggest international upset since the Alamo.” Mexico had their revenge a week later, winning 3-0 and eliminating the US.
In qualifying for the 1966 World Cup, the US secured a draw in LA against Mexico once again, with a 2-2 score line on 7 March 1965 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, in front of a record crowd for a US-based World Cup qualifier of 23,000 fans. Again, most were rooting for the away team. Though the US secured a point, another loss in Mexico followed in the return game.
Seven years passed before the US played Mexico again in World Cup qualifying, as El Tri qualified automatically for the 1970 World Cup as the host nation. Los Angeles continued its exclusive grip on games against Mexico, with the qualifier held on September 10, 1972. With the US already eliminated, Mexico won 2-1 in front of nearly 10,000 fans. The US scrambled to even field a team, with semi-pro player Barney Djordjevic called from the stands before kickoff to join the American XI.
1978 World Cup qualifying saw LA’s dubious streak as a winless host city for US-Mexico games march on. This time, it was a 0-0 draw before a record 33,173 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum on October 3 1976, the largest ever crowd at the stadium for a soccer game. American goalkeeper Arnold Mauser putting in a virtuoso display to keep the Mexicans at bay.
The 1980s saw the US play Mexico outside of Los Angeles in World Cup qualifying for the first time. That game came on November 23, 1980 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Though the United States was already out of contention to qualify, they beat Mexico for the first time on American soil. Steve Moyers scored both goals in a 2-1 win for the Americans, but only a little over two thousand fans showed up.
The US met Mexico next again in World Cup qualifying in 1997 – a full 17 years passing as the nations both hosted a World Cup, thus qualifying automatically, and did not meet in 1990 World Cup qualifying, when the US made it to the World Cup for the first time in forty years.
By 1997, the US had clearly made up an awful lot of ground on its southern neighbor on the field. Off it, the nation still lacked a good-sized soccer-specific-stadium to host the game. The US Soccer Federation knew it could sell out a venue like the Rose Bowl near Los Angeles for the game – but that would ensure a crowd cheering for Mexico in a critical game. The two countries played at the Rose Bowl in the summer of 1996 in front of 93,000 fans, almost entirely supporting Mexico in a 2-2 draw.
So, for the first time against Mexico, US Soccer decided to pick a venue that could provide the US the feel of considerable home support. The Federation picked Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts and it did not disappoint. A sellout crowd of 57,877 meant the USSF took in over $1 million less in revenue than it might have at the Rose Bowl, but it also increased its odds of a home team victory.
A new supporters group for the US team that had founded following the 1994 World Cup, Sam’s Army, appeared in force with almost 1,000 members present at the game. Sports Illustrated reported the “majority of the crowd rooted for the home team,” bolstered by “the tireless whistling, drumbeating and periodic singing of Sam’s Army.”
The US coach, Steve Sampson, concluded after the 1-1 draw that the crowd had played a role. “It made a difference having a pro-American crowd,” he said. “Crowd support is equal to at least one goal a game. Today you could finally see something that could grow here.”
Ahead of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, Crew Stadium opened in Columbus in 1999, the first soccer-specific-stadium in MLS. With a cozy capacity of a little over 20,000 and from the first qualifier against Mexico held there on February 28, 2001 on a chilly day, a notably pro-American crowd. A sell-out crowd of 24,624 watched as Josh Wolff and Earnie Stewart scored in a 2-0 result, the first American win against Mexico in a World Cup qualifier since 1980.
US goalkeeper and Ohio-native Brad Friedel said after the game that “I think the crowd helped us more than the weather did. That was a factor in the game. It would be great to play here a lot in the future.”
The US Soccer Federation took the hint, and Crew Stadium has continued to prove an inspired venue for home World Cup qualifiers against Mexico. DaMarcus Beasley and Steve Ralston scored the goals in a 2-0 qualifying win over Mexico in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup on September 3, 2005, and Michael Bradley found the net twice in another 2-0 win on February 11, 2009 as the US and Mexico began final round qualifying for South Africa.
As US Soccer prepares to announce where it will hold the 2013 home edition of USA-Mexico in World Cup qualifying, the history supports Mark McCullers’ argument that it should be in Columbus.
Tom Dunmore is a Chicago-based writer and an editor of XI Quarterly. You can follow him on Twitter @tomdunmore or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.