COLUMBUS, Ohio — From a physical standpoint, there is nothing remarkable about Columbus Crew Stadium. Sitting on the northern edge of the state fairgrounds, on a bend of I-71 next to Frisch’s Big Boy and Lowe’s, the utilitarian structure futilely begs for attention.
The upper deck is featureless. Most seating is on steel bleachers. A stage occupies one end. Last spring, just before an MLS match, the main scoreboard caught fire.
And yet, the U.S. national soccer team would not want to be anywhere else this week.
When the Americans host Mexico in World Cup qualifiers, as they will Tuesday night, they play in Columbus. End of discussion.
There are bigger, newer and prettier stadiums available. There are markets with more passionate and sophisticated audiences. But for U.S. purposes, the Ohio capital offers an advantageous environment with a proven record.
Why mess with a good thing?
For the fourth Columbus renewal between the bitter rivals, the Americans will have the crowd and history on their side. Overall, the U.S. team is 6-0-3 at Crew Stadium, which, with temporary seating added, will accommodate about 25,000 fans Tuesday.
“I remember in the past, when I first started out with the national team, it felt like you were playing in another country,” veteran forward Clint Dempsey said, reflecting on some home qualifiers that, amid shifting demographics, would attract fans supporting teams from Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Columbus is one of those venues that you have that 12th man. It adds to the excitement and puts more pressure on the other team because they are a little tentative and not as confident.”
In each of the prior meetings here, the United States defeated Mexico by the same score (2-0) and with the same vociferous support. Each victory played a pivotal role in securing passage to the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
Like in the 2006 cycle, when the Americans clinched a berth by defeating Mexico in Columbus, they could lock up a place in Brazil next summer with a victory Tuesday. They would, however, also need Honduras (3-3-1) to win or draw at home against Panama (1-2-4).
Otherwise, attention would turn to last-place Jamaica on Oct. 11. The United States (4-2-1) is in second place in a six-team group that provides three automatic berths. Mexico (1-1-5) is fourth and desperate for points.
“Sooner the better,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
Christened in 1999, Crew Stadium first hosted a qualifier against Mexico in February 2001. The USSF knew it could count on a predominantly U.S. crowd — and also bone-chilling cold.
When the federation hatched the idea, “I thought, ‘That’s brilliant,’ ” said Crew President and General Manager Mark McCullers, who, at the time, oversaw stadium operations. “It began with making the Mexican team uncomfortable and creating a home-field advantage, but that has grown and become more complex. It’s a mental advantage now.”
Although Columbus was the clear front-runner again this time around, MLS’s Sporting Kansas City made a hard push to land a qualifier. Like Columbus, Kansas City provides a pro-U.S. setting in a compact stadium. Sporting Park will stage the Jamaica game next month.
Smaller venues allow the USSF to better manage ticket sales, through pre-sale offers to U.S. supporters groups and MLS season ticket holders in that city. When tickets are abundant for U.S.-Mexico friendlies or tournament games in large facilities, the crowds are typically pro-Mexican.
“We have a history here, and with soccer in this country, that is not always the case,” injured midfielder Michael Bradley said. “There is an overwhelming feeling of support.”
Mexico has its own advantages at home: 105,000-seat Azteca Stadium in the thin air of Mexico City. Until an August 2012 friendly, the Americans had never won there. They are still seeking their first qualifying victory. The first qualifier between the sides this year ended in a 0-0 draw — a triumph for the visiting U.S. squad.
Columbus has “worked for us in the past, but you’ve still got to win,” veteran defender DaMarcus Beasley said. “You’re not going to win it on paper. You’re not going to win it like it’s 2005, 2009. Those [past] games don’t matter no more. It’s about 2013.”
The Americans will try to respond from a 3-1 loss at first-place Costa Rica on Friday, which ended a five-game unbeaten streak in qualifiers and a 12-match winning streak overall.
Mexico lost to third-place Honduras, 2-1, only the second qualifying defeat in Azteca Stadium history. The next day, Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre was canned.
“This rivalry is a wonderful thing,” U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. “There is a lot of admiration for each other and obviously a lot of emotions — and we’re going to see those emotions on the field.”