COLUMBUS, Ohio – The United States wants its showdown with Mexico on Wednesday to be the start of a journey that ends at the 2010 World Cup, but the opening clash of the final round of CONCACAF qualifying could more accurately be billed as the Million Dollar Game.
U.S. Soccer has forsaken a seven-figure sum in order to stage the match in the chilly and pro-USA confines of Crew Stadium instead of a larger venue in a location more accommodating to the visitors. Even in these fiscally uncertain times, the goal of reaching next year's World Cup finals in South Africa is a greater priority than extra revenue.
The decision was not a difficult one to make – missing out on the World Cup would cost the federation infinitely more than a million bucks – but it is a worthy idea nevertheless and one deserving of praise. Taking the game to the home of the Major League Soccer champion Columbus Crew guarantees a passionate and vocal crowd that will expect to cheer the United States to a morale-boosting victory to kick off its Hexagonal campaign.
Crew Stadium holds only 20,000, meaning U.S. Soccer was able to closely control ticket sales and ensure that members of official fan clubs were given first selection. There will be fans of Mexico at the game, but they will be few and far between and will probably have traveled a long way. According to a 2000 census, only 2.46 percent of the Columbus population was classified as Hispanic or Latino.
This is the biggest game of the year for the United States, and no chances are being taken.
"It is always a tough call to give up revenue," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "But getting to the World Cup is what we are all about, and it is by far the most important factor here. Playing in a big stadium could easily see half the crowd supporting Mexico, which does us no good at all."
The prospect of frosty weather was another factor in favor of Columbus, but Mexico may have caught a break. Last week, temperatures dipped to an arctic 10 degrees; this week, they have risen significantly and could be as high as 55 degrees come game time.
Some observers have criticized U.S. Soccer officials for not cashing in by playing in a packed NFL stadium. However, there is more at stake than a quick buck.
"We are looking forward to Columbus," said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. "It is a place we have done well at before, and we feel it is a good environment for the team to be in. We know that a good start to qualifying can really set us up well."
Participation in the World Cup is vital if soccer's growth in North America is to continue. The bid to host either the 2018 or 2022 tournament would be jeopardized if the team missed out in 2010.
There is also an element of righting past mistakes. The worst of these came in 1985, when the United States needed only a draw in its final home game against Costa Rica to progress to the final qualification round. The tilted wisdom of the federation's then-hierarchy ordained that the game be played in Torrance, Calif., an area heavily infused with Costa Rica expats, and, to compound the error in judgment, the game was marketed almost exclusively to the Costa Rican community. A crowd that was fiercely supportive of the visitors saw Costa Rica win 1-0.
Columbus is a happy hunting ground, having staged seven prior U.S. qualifiers. The United States has recorded four wins and three draws there, including a pair of 2-0 victories against Mexico in 2001 and 2005.
The Crew's fans are among the most vocal in MLS, and that passionate ambience should be mirrored on Wednesday. U.S. supporters have been asked to dress in red to create an imposing environment, and Sam's Army is expected to respond enthusiastically.
"The fans here really get into it for our games," said Crew forward and U.S. squad member Robbie Rogers. "It is going to be just like that, if not better, for the Mexico game and it will be a great occasion."
Mexico doesn't like coming to Ohio. There are regular complaints from El Tri's fans about their team being subjected to an unfair disadvantage, conveniently ignoring the fact that the heat, smog and altitude of Estadio Azteca in Mexico City provide the ultimate "home court."
"It is not ideal to be here," Mexican midfielder Sinha said. "But we need to overcome these things and look to win the game."
A victory in Columbus would be a giant step forward for Bradley and his team. The chance to sew up qualification early and test some younger players in the latter stages would be mightily valuable heading into South Africa, where international exposure is worth far more than a million bucks.