COLUMBUS, Ohio – The United States men's national team believes it can use one of the most passionate crowds in American soccer to intimidate its biggest rival Mexico and book a place in the World Cup on Tuesday.
Crew Stadium will host the most critical fixture of the qualifying campaign thus far, as a victory over El Tri would almost guarantee a spot among the world's best in Brazil next summer.
Despite holding just over 24,000, the venue makes up for its smaller capacity with a vocal and raucous atmosphere whenever the national team plays here – which it invariably does for its most important matches.
With Mexico struggling desperately and having fired head coach Jose Manuel de la Torre after a humiliating home defeat to Honduras on Friday, U.S. captain Clint Dempsey wants to give CONCACAF's traditional power no let up.
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"It is always important that the 12th man plays their role and makes it difficult for the opposition, make them feel nervous and not be confident on the ball," Dempsey said. "Columbus has always been good to us and hopefully it wont be any different this time around."
The U.S. has played Mexico three times in qualifiers at Crew Stadium and won 2-0 on each occasion, in 2001, 2005 and 2009.
Without a true national soccer home like many other nations, U.S. soccer moves qualifying games around the country and the thinking behind hosting Mexico in Columbus is manifold. The area has a low Mexican population, which can be of serious significance. When the two teams met in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final in Los Angeles in 2011, the crowd was estimated as being 85 percent pro-Mexican – and Mexico racked up a 4-2 victory.
"No other city I have seen [the national team] play in can compare [with Columbus]," said supporter Marc Rigby. "Not even the incredible atmosphere in Seattle."
The weather also plays a part, with the region offering chillier temperatures that are less familiar for Mexican players. That factor played heavily in the past, with matches staged in February and November, much less so in early September.
Then there is the venue itself. Crew Stadium was the USA's first soccer-specific stadium, built in 1999 as the brainchild of the late Lamar Hunt. Columbus has always been a strong soccer town and supports the Crew, its MLS team, loyally and noisily.
"The atmosphere at Crew Stadium for a national team match makes your spine tingle," said fan Nick Lohr, from the Columbus chapter of the American Outlaws, a national collective that has emerged in recent years as the biggest and most passionate U.S. fan organization.
The Outlaws have modeled themselves on the kind of passionate support most often seen in European or South American soccer, with constant chanting, singing and cheering, specifically aimed at giving their side the advantage and rattling the opposition.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, the atmosphere will be an 11," added U.S. fan Trent Reed.
The rivalry between Mexico and the U.S. has grown steadily in recent years but there has rarely been more on the line than Tuesday. The U.S. has performed well in qualifying and stands on the brink of reaching its eighth straight World Cup finals, despite losing 3-1 in Costa Rica on Friday.
Despite likely missing influential midfielder Michael Bradley through injury and Matt Besler, Jozy Altidore and Geoff Cameron through suspension, the home side is the favorite going into the contest.
Mexico, on the other hand, is gripped with panic. A haul of just eight points from seven games led to De La Torre's release and a defeat to the U.S. would leave it in serious danger of missing out. The top three in CONCACAF progress directly to Brazil, with the fourth-placed finisher set to face New Zealand in a home-and-home playoff.
Given the general level of hatred between the teams, it is safe to assume the American players would take extra satisfaction from worsening Mexico's plight.
However, a wounded team is a dangerous beast, and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann knows it.
"[The Mexicans] are now absolutely with their back against the wall," Klinsmann said. "We approach the game wanting to win at any cost and on Tuesday night it is going to be very intense."