United States 2, Mexico 0
There were several scenarios Saturday night in which the U.S. national soccer team could have clinched a 2006 World Cup berth. But the most direct route to Germany next summer -- and undoubtedly the most difficult -- was to defeat archrival Mexico in front of an overflowing crowd of 24,685 at Columbus Crew Stadium.
For more than a half, though, the sluggish Americans appeared as if they would have to take the circuitous path -- a tie or loss combined with results in other regional matches. But in a stunning five-minute stretch, midfielders Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley scored goals to send the United States to a 2-0 victory and its fifth consecutive appearance in the World Cup.
"We're going, baby!" forward Landon Donovan shouted following a flag-waving celebration in which the players danced around the field and absorbed the raucous salute from the pro-U.S. gathering.
"They made it a little easy on us; I expected a little more. After we got the first one, they were never in the game. . . . At least for three or four more years, [the Mexicans] will shut up. They can't say anything and I love it."
The Americans (6-1-0) became the eighth team to secure a berth in the 32-nation finals, and they did it with three games remaining on their qualifying schedule after leaving just one match to spare in their 1998 and 2002 efforts. The Mexicans, who could have clinched with a tie, fell to 5-1-1 and will turn to Wednesday's home match against last-place Panama to finish the job.
"A tight game, and in these type of games between two teams like the United States and Mexico, you've got to jump on any kind of opportunities you get," Coach Bruce Arena said. "We did that, and it made the difference in the game."
Until the goals arrived, the Americans had had trouble formulating a consistent attack and failed to test goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez. So they turned to a pair of set pieces to turn the match in their favor.
In the 53rd minute, Eddie Lewis served a 35-yard free kick toward the back post and 6-foot-4 defender Oguchi Onyewu. The Maryland native's short header struck the left post and bounded across the goal line to Ralston, who easily nodded the ball into a vacant net for his fourth international goal.
"It was probably the easiest goal I've ever scored," said Ralston, who has played in MLS for 10 years. "If I had missed that, it would've been pretty embarrassing. We had talked about all week that set pieces would be an important part of the game and would probably decide the game, and ultimately those came up for us."
The Americans harnessed the momentum for a second goal. Beasley pushed a short corner kick to Donovan, who found Claudio Reyna. Reyna directed a perfect diagonal ball to the cutting Beasley, who curled a 12-yard shot into the far corner for his 12th strike in a U.S. uniform.
More than 30 minutes remained, but Mexico was clearly not itself. Its play turned desperate and angry, and the U.S. defense kept its composure to help goalkeeper Kasey Keller extend his shutout streak in qualifying play to 507 minutes, dating to the 2-1 loss in Mexico City in March.
The victory came amid a festive atmosphere. Just off Interstate 71, where the exit ramps lead to the stadium parking lots, fans held up bilingual, hand-written signs: "I Need Tickets. Necesito Boletos." The highest official ticket price was $95, but scalpers were asking for between $150 and $350.
Early-arriving fans crossed paths on the surrounding roads with some spectators who had crossed the city after departing the Ohio State football team's opener a couple miles to the west. Tri-colored Mexican and U.S. flags fluttered out of car windows, scarlet-and-gray Buckeye emblems adoring others.
The American supporters' group, Sam's Army, marched into the stadium by mocking the Mexican fans with unified chants of "Estados Unidos!" Despite U.S. organizers' best efforts to limit ticket sales to Mexican fans, there were a few thousand green jerseys spread throughout the stands.
The Americans dictated play for the first 25 minutes or so, but began to lose their way in midfield. Mexico composed itself and created the most dangerous opportunities of the opening half. Jared Borgetti sent through Antonio Naelson, but the Brazilian-born midfielder's first touch at the top of the box betrayed him and spoiled the moment.
During injury time, Ramon Morales' 27-yard free kick tested Keller, who fully extended himself to the right to push away a shot that might have been going wide anyway.
The second half didn't start much better for the Americans, but out of nowhere, they took command of the match.
As Mexico's chances faded and the final whistle approached, the celebration commenced.
"We didn't go with any expectations when we would qualify -- we just wanted to qualify," veteran forward Brian McBride said. "The team showed a lot of discipline and concentration throughout the whole process."