The United States Soccer Federation has a Chicago address, but the men’s national team has no real home. It is a vagabond band that gathers when necessary, trains on both coasts and plays wherever the ball is rolled.
It has its favorite haunts, though. There are certain places where the beer is always cold, the atmosphere is always comfortable and old friends abound. Columbus might be the best of those places.
Last night, the boys were back in town, just in time. They needed Crew Stadium, a veritable steel lunch bucket in the middle of America, a descriptor of their blue-collar roots. It is like their union hall, and the brothers rallied before a roaring, sellout crowd of 23,881.
The Americans dominated the first half, Herculez Gomez scored a beauty off a free kick in the second half, and they beat the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica 1-0. Given the way they had played in the first three games of this CONCACAF semifinal stage, and given what was at stake, it was a massive relief (and we do mean Massive).
“Obviously, we are back on track, but we know it’s not done yet,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We know it’s down to the wire. That’s what World Cup qualifiers are about. It was obviously very important after that frustrating loss Friday night in Kingston to come back and get back on pole position.”
The Americans have not played a more important game this early in World Cup qualifying in more than 10 years. They needed to beat Jamaica to reestablish themselves as one of the two dominant teams, along with Mexico, in the region. What would a loss have done? Put it this way: The U.S. is one of only seven teams to have qualified for the past six World Cups — and a loss would have had them teetering on the edge of a premature and ignominious elimination.
They were uninspiring in their victory over Antigua and Barbuda in Tampa, Fla., on June 8. They blew a 1-0 lead late and settled for a draw in Guatemala on June 12. They were disjointed and punch-less, they blew an early 1-0 lead and lost 2-1 in Jamaica on Friday night.
It was the first time they had lost to Jamaica. Klinsmann’s tactics and personnel decisions were called into question. The pressure was mounting.
Hello, Columbus, it is good to see you again.
When Klinsmann stepped to the microphone after last night’s victory, he said: “First of all, we want to thank that crowd out there in Columbus for their tremendous support, for the tremendous atmosphere and that push. I think all the players, every one of us, appreciated that. It was fantastic.”
He was not pandering. He was relieved.
On the edges of the country — in places such as New York, L.A. and Miami — large Latino populations and traveling supporter groups have a tendency to temper home-field advantage for international matches. That is not the case here. The U.S. is 6-0-3 all time in Crew Stadium, 5-0-2 in World Cup qualifiers. One only had to peer into the parking lots before last night’s game to begin to understand why.
There, on one edge of a lot, two Crew supporters’ groups — the Union and the Hudson Street Hooligans — joined with the American Outlaws in a massive tailgate party (and we do mean Massive). They presented a castle wall of kegs and flags. They were defending their turf, and if that sounds overly jingoistic, well, that is soccer.
The patriotic theme was also stoked by circumstance. It was lost on no one that this game was played on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Three New York firemen were honored prior to the game. The national anthem was belted out by one and all. A moment of silence followed. Then, the U.S. team for 30 minutes showed just how well it can play in an old haunt, on a smooth and lovely greensward, keeping possession for minutes on end, attacking when the opportunity was there, denting the posts and the crossbar on multiple occasions. All that was missing was a goal, and Gomez provided that later. They would not blow this lead, not here.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.