For weeks the speculation centered on Seattle or Salt Lake City. US Soccer appeared ready to move the every World Cup cycle qualifier against arch rival Mexico to a new venue. Fans, including myself were in an uproar: How could US Soccer simply cede the best home field advantage possible in this country which is Crew Stadium in Columbus?
Give credit to Sunil Gulati and the US Soccer Federation. Chicago got our message and the qualifier now fifteen short days away is once again being held in Soccertown USA, as I dubbed it close to ten years ago. Columbus gives the US a remarkable home-field advantage. In February 2001 it was snowing at Crew Stadium and despite losing Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride to early injuries, the ruckus crowd carried the US behind stellar play from their replacements: Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff, to a 2-0 US win.
Four years later, the US’ home fixture date is in September but once again the game is held in Columbus. I had the occasion to visit Mexico days before this game and was told that any advantage Crew Stadium gave the US team was neutralized in the summer Ohio heat. But the fans of EL Tri were wrong, and DaMarcus Beasley led the US to a 2-0 clean sheet that clinched American participation in Germany 2006, the fifth consecutive US qualification for the world’s biggest team sporting event.
Not only did US Soccer cave the fans demands to continue to hold this match in Columbus, but gave up substantial revenue to do so. Sunil Gulati, the President of US Soccer spoke to the Sports Business Journal about this issue. “In the economic environment we’re in and in the pre-eminent game of the year, it’s never easy (to give up revenue), but it’s an easy decision in this case because the most important thing we do is qualifying for the World Cup,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “[Qualifying for the World Cup is] so central to our mission that even if it didn’t add commercial value, it would still override all of those issues.”
The bottom line is this: Gulati may not admit it, but he probably was caught by surprise by the number of die hard US Soccer backers who were disappointed when it appeared Columbus was being passed over for the 2009 version of the CONCACAF Classico. It not only has to do with winning karma, but when the US plays in Columbus it’s the biggest event in town: only competiting seriously with Ohio State Basketball. The games are embraced by residents and Ohio State college students alike.
Contrast that with holding a game of this magnitude in some big time American sports town. The buildup for the game may be relegated to page 5C of the sports section and the local TV news may not give it the attention it deserves. Columbus, thanks to MLS and the Crew as well as the CONCACAF Classico has become a bonafide Soccer town. It’s no coincidence during World Cup 2006 when ABC kept trying to build up the crowds in Times Square watching the live feeds of the US games, that far more people congregated around the mobile TV’s in Columbus than New York.
Columbus for better or for worse has become the focal point of international football in this country. It’s a sign of maturity and comfort that US Soccer accepted this and turned down the revenue available from holding the match in a bigger city and a bigger stadium to do what was right for the game itself.
(P.S. I’m proud to state that the photo at the top of this article was taken with my dearly departed camera which was left on a bus in London two days later. The picture is from the US-England match at Wembley in 2008)