By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Nov 7, 2016) US Soccer Players – "There’s no place like home" certainly applies to the USMNT in Columbus. Playing at home is an advantage, but that's not always the case in CONCACAF. Pick the wrong city, and that advantage can quickly shift to the visiting team.
US Soccer learned that the hard way over the years, playing home games that felt like they were away. That changed courtesy of Major League Soccer. The Columbus Crew built a soccer-specific stadium at the Ohio Fairgrounds and all of a sudden the USMNT had a fortress. Columbus's reputation is on the line again this week when World Cup qualifying returns to MAPFRE Stadium.
The USA will renew its rivalry against Mexico at the venue where it has had the most-success versus its southern neighbor. The USMNT has played Mexico there in the last four World Cup Qualifying cycles and won 2-0 every time. Indeed, the chant “Dos a Cero” will echo loudly when the sides meet again on Friday. The venue may have changed name, but the atmosphere and cold weather will all be there to greet the Mexican players.
“Psychologically, it’s a big part of our sport and we’re getting three points every time we’re (in Columbus),” said former midfielder Chris Armas, who played in the US-Mexico game at the venue in 2001. “It’s a beautiful surface, it’s big, and at certain times a year it’s cold – the colder the better – but there’s so many little things that play into it but Columbus is a great host with great fans.”
While the legendary Estadio Azteca seems to no longer be the place Mexico wants to hold its qualifiers, MAPFRE Stadium remains the ideal venue for the United States. It's intimate and the late fall and winter months provide it with the climactic edge necessary to win games. In a region where gamesmanship is everything, Columbus continues to serve as the National Team’s good luck charm. The USA is 8-0-3 at the venue, recording an astounding 10 shutouts and outscoring opponents a staggering 19-1. In World Cup Qualifying, the U.S. is 7-0-2 – the most-recent this past March in a 4-0 win against Guatemala.
“It means a lot to us to play Mexico in Columbus. Columbus is for us what Azteca Stadium is for them,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann told USSoccer.com. “It’s a game where emotions will go through the roof, and we need to have our crowd behind us bringing their voice against our biggest rival.”
As the start of the Hex approaches, it has become a tale of two venues when discussing MAPFRE Stadium and Estadio Azteca. Columbus and Mexico City couldn't be more different. Columbus is a typical medium-sized American city with a Midwestern small town feel. Mexico’s capitol is a sprawling metropolis with one of the biggest populations in the Americas.
MAPFRE Stadium has a capacity of just 20,000. It was the original model for soccer-specific stadiums when it opened in 1999. It forever changed the fan culture within Major League Soccer and spurred the creation of numerous other stadiums. MLS teams moved away from playing inside cavernous NFL stadiums and in more intimate settings. It's that intimate setting that has served US Soccer well against Mexico during World Cup Qualifiers. It has been nothing short of a fortress.
The Azteca is the opposite in many ways. It is a giant facility with an atmosphere meant to intimidate opponents. For decades that was the case. The United States, for example, has never beaten Mexico at the Azteca in a game that counted. In August 2012, the US beat El Tri 1-0 in a friendly at the Estadio Azteca, the only time that has happened.
It seems unthinkable, but the Mexican FA recently said it was considering the possibility of abandoning Azteca during its five Qualifying games. Despite the thin air due to the altitude, searing heat and 100,000 screaming fans, the venue is no longer the fortress it once was. A 2-1 loss to Costa Rica in 2001 ended a 20-year unbeaten streak. In trying to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Mexico won only one home game during the Hex and needed a playoff to reach the finals. Trying to avoid a repeat of that near-debacle, Mexico is considering the 51,000-seat BBVA Bancomer Stadium in Monterrey, built just last year.
Things change, even in a top-heavy confederation like CONCACAF. Taking anything as a given can turn into a problem for a national team. Right now, that's El Tri at Azteca. Turning Columbus into a problem for the USMNT would be a major statement for Mexico. The reverse also holds, with the USMNT looking to once again remind Mexico how difficult playing away in Ohio is.
Based in New York City, Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He covers all topics relating to American soccer, including Major League Soccer. He has covered the last two World Cups for the site. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Clemente began writing for our site in July 2007. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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