It all started early that day at 4th Street Bar. Well, that’s not completely accurate. It really started as I drove into Columbus. There was a discernible change in the atmosphere as cars drove past me sporting “United States is going to Brazil” and “USA vs Mexico” on their windows. The city was charged. It wasn’t getting warmed up. I was joining something that had been going on for days.
The American Outlaws had bunkered down at 4th Street and they had come in numbers. The infantry reported from all over and wore their platoon names proudly on their jerseys. Omaha, Lexington, Seattle. All hands were on deck. The 88-degree bar was bloated and overflowing except for those who were crowding around the freezers posted outside to find relief from the heat under the blazing sun. The heat, the sweat, none of it mattered. War was at hand. Strategy was discussed, battle hymns were sung, and hope was spreading like wildfire.
We marched at 6pm, two hours before kickoff. The streets were indiscernible. Small streams of supporters flowed into one giant, meandering, red sea that flooded the city on the way to the grounds. Columbus belonged to the Yanks.
I spent a good portion of my life living outside of Columbus. I attended the inaugural match at Crew Stadium and have been to countless matches since. To say I was familiar with the coliseum is an understatement. But as our army turned to approach the battlefield, I caught a glimpse of the stadium, and I couldn’t recognize it. Gone was the gold and black home of the Columbus Crew. In its stead was what Mexican newspapers referred to as “La Casa del Terror.” A red and white fortress that had never been overtaken by Mexican forces. The three previous matches at this monolith all ended 2-0 to the United States. This was the home of Dos A Cero.
The first warning shot of the night was fired during the national anthem. US fans, who encompassed the overwhelming majority of supporters in attendance, in one motion, raised their scarves that proudly read “Land of the Free,” and sang at a deafening volume. It was a statement. This was the home of the United States and it would not be taken easily.
The second warning shot came at halftime with the score still 0-0. Mexico entered the match with their qualifying campaign on the ropes, knowing they needed a result to kick-start their final push for Brazil. The first 20 minutes were furious. Mexico had no low gear. Every ball, every player went straight for Tim Howard’s goal. Through this time, the Americans concentrated on holding the line. A few shots from 20 yards peppered the goal, but Howard wasn’t bothered. The Yanks attacked mainly on counters and almost broke Mexico’s defenses, most notably chances from Dempsey and Johnson. But with no points on the board after 45 minutes, both teams returned to their war rooms, Mexico worse for the wear following their all-out attack.
The second half began and almost as soon as it did, a corner kick by Landon Donovan found the head of Eddie Johnson. The 29-year-old forward cannoned the ball into the back of Guillermo Ochoa’s net. What resulted happened in an instant. The supporters, who had been at their bursting point for days, exploded. Crew Stadium was no longer a fortress, it was a volcano. Red, white, and blue erupted from the mouth of the stadium. The city of Columbus shook.
Mexico were wounded, but not out. The United States defense had done their homework and smothered the poacher, Chicharito. At times it was easy to forget he was on the field. The Manchester United striker was literally a non-factor. But Giovani dos Santos was another story. The midfielder was determined to end the Yankees’ undefeated narrative in Columbus. His quick cuts and balls into the box, coupled with a few accurate shots on goal, pestered the US throughout the second half. Unfortunately for him, dos Santos was facing a monster. Tim Howard, throughout the entire night, was an animal. The penalty box was his territory. When a player entered it was because he let him. When a ball came in, it belonged to him. His focus broke for just an instant when play stopped at the other end of the field. His performance had been fed that night by screams of “Timmy Howard! *clap *clap *clap.” As the fans screamed his name he turned to them, for a single second, and thrust a fist into the air. Again, Columbus shook.
The deathblow came in the 77th minute when Donovan, who had assisted the first goal, swept in a cross from the substitute, Diskerud. The play had been pushed on by our chants. The players’ speed and skill came not from their muscles, but from the screams of “U-S-A, U-S-A.” There was another eruption from the stadium but it was different this time. It wasn’t a celebration of a goal, it was the celebration of a victory. Mexico was defeated and everyone knew it. “We are going to Brazil!” echoed for the remainder of the match.
A late penalty was blasted wide of target by Dempsey, but it didn’t matter. For the fourth time in a row the United States felled Mexico 2-0 in Columbus. Fans stuck around after the final whistle to watch Honduras and Panama on the stadium’s scoreboard. A win or tie by Honduras would officially put team USA into the 2014 World Cup. We watched with bated breath, but no one was worried. The result we needed would come. Fate had written that night.
And so it was. In the most dramatic of nights, Honduras tied Panama 2-2 and the United States booked a ticket to the big dance in Brazil. The troops left the stadium in droves. Some went to continue the celebration; some went to take a much-deserved rest, and all left with the smell of victory fresh on their clothes.