COLUMBUS -- As a rabid group of American soccer supporters sing and chant behind the ESPN FC set Tuesday before the USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier, you can't help but believe this event represented more than just another soccer match. Everything about the atmosphere in Columbus, Ohio suggested this night was the culmination of a movement that has changed the American sporting landscape. For a second, you would be forgiven for thinking you were standing on the set of College GameDay 2.5 miles across town at Ohio Stadium and not ESPN FC. Perhaps the only differences between the two are the scarlet and gray colors being replaced by the red, white, and blue and the creative signs being replaced with creative chants like "We'll send you postcards from Brazil." ESPN lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman is firing up a crowd that needs no extra incentive to lose their minds two hours before kickoff. The fans respond by taking turns chanting for Twellman, Shaka Hislop, and Alejandro Moreno. It's an atmosphere and a level of excitement that would rival any other sporting event in America. This is the moment ESPN's soccer team and the sport as a whole has been building towards. A moment where the USA-Mexico qualifier is no longer just a soccer game, no longer just a rivalry game, but a transcendent game in the American sporting culture.
Columbus Crew Stadium is an unlikely place for that transcendent game. Its location in the city is nondescript to the extreme. To the south is the spacious Ohio State Fairgrounds. To the north, a Lowe's warehouse and a Frisch's Big Boy. To the west and east are the railroad tracks and I-71 respectively, which make any meaningful revitalization such a challenge. For the fan that's looking for added spice to the gameday experience, the Ohio Historical Society is located next door. Completed in 1999, the country's first soccer specific stadium already feels a little rustic just 14 years later. It was a big deal when the parking lot was paved a couple years ago. The scoreboard caught fire at a game earlier this season. The attendance for the USA-Mexico game was less than one-fourth the crowd that saw Ohio State and San Diego State play a glorified exhibition three days earlier at Ohio Stadium.
Perhaps it's fitting that in spite of that unlikeliness, Crew Stadium has become the spiritual home of American soccer as the sport has catapulted into the mainstream sports landscape over the past decade. For this USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier, the quaint stadium between Hudson Street and 17th Avenue is once again transformed into a cauldron of passionate, loyal American soccer fans and a venue US Soccer can comfortably call "home." As a Columbus resident, there's a massive amount of pride in our city rising up for this occasion and being that home for US Soccer. With the ascent of soccer and the USA-Mexico rivalry, the game may someday outgrow the physical Crew Stadium, but it will never outgrow the spirit that exists in this now revered fortress of American soccer. In many ways, this site, Crew Stadium, and this game, USA-Mexico, come together to symbolize the past, present, and future of the sport in this country.
At those crossroads of the sport's past, present, and future stands one of the most critical players in American soccer and this budding USA-Mexico soccer rivalry.