COLUMBUS, Ohio — To find one of the world’s great international soccer rivalries, one must travel to the heart of the Buckeye State, ride along Interstate 71, past the state fairgrounds and, if you choose to take the back entrance, wind around Frisch’s Big Boy and Lowe’s.
There sits Mapfre Stadium, formerly Columbus Crew Stadium, where, on a quadrennial schedule since 2001, the U.S. and Mexican national teams have clashed in a World Cup qualifier.
Capacity is less than 25,000. Many fans will watch from metal bleachers. The private boxes are barely private. It is, by American stadium standards, a bare-bones, no-frills venue.
The occasion would seem to demand a high-end stage, one that could meet public demand for tickets and offer a world-class TV backdrop. But the little stadium — four miles north of the statehouse and within earshot of 18-wheelers rumbling toward Mansfield, Ashland and Cleveland — has become an almost-permanent location for the program’s biggest home match of all.
The teams will renew their bitter rivalry Friday, the first game for each on an 11-month odyssey during the six-nation final round of qualifying. Three countries will punch tickets to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, while a fourth will have to pass through a playoff against an Asian side.
The Americans aim to collect three points on every home date — and gain a few on the road — in order to secure an eighth consecutive World Cup berth. But the match that stirs emotions like no other and attracts the most attention is the home game against El Tri (Mexico).
Once the Americans had escaped the previous round and learned the date of the Mexico showdown, the U.S. Soccer Federation began finalizing plans for Columbus. No other venue was seriously considered.
“It should always be here,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “This is where it belongs. We finally got that in our back pocket — a place that we feel comfortable, we feel at home.”
The United States has hosted Mexico in four previous qualifiers here. All ended in 2-0 victories. Accordingly, a slogan was born: “Dos a Cero.”
The USSF could sell 100,000 tickets to a U.S.-Mexico game. But by doing so, it would sacrifice home-field advantage. With millions of Mexican supporters living in the United States, the team has an enormous fan base that turns up everywhere El Tri plays.
For revenue purposes, Mexico plays most of its friendlies at U.S. venues. A year ago, for a U.S.-Mexico game organized by CONCACAF, the regional governing body, the sold-out Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., had a predominant Mexican flavor.
Many times over the years, the Americans have felt like the visiting team at home when facing not only Mexico, but other Latin American foes backed by an expatriate community.
With a small ticket manifest in Columbus, though, the USSF has greater control of distribution: Members of the American Outlaws supporters group and Columbus Crew fans get first crack. Most other tickets go in a lottery. Mexican fans do acquire tickets and the Mexican federation is allocated a small amount.
For the most part, however, “it’s an American crowd that gives us a feeling from minute one that we have an advantage,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said.
This year’s game comes with political overtones in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election Tuesday.
Both coaches tried playing down the political angle.
“Football worldwide is a sport that connects people,” U.S. boss Jurgen Klinsmann said. “It’s purely a sporting event. We have a lot of respect for Mexico and their people and their team. This is a wonderful side of sports that brings people together.”
Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio, a U.S.-educated Colombian who coached MLS’s Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls, said he can “sympathize with what the Mexicans feel about the whole situation. However and nevertheless, my efforts are all directed toward winning that game and nothing else.”
Leaders of the American Outlaws reached out to their members via a statement Thursday, encouraging the 8,000-plus members in attendance to “focus on lifting up our team and its supporters rather than tearing down our opponents and their fans.
“We are certainly not without our flaws and our bad apples, but our group has always strived to learn, grow, and change so we can represent the best of our country: diversity, tolerance and openness. We shall endeavor to be no different on Friday.”
Just before kickoff, the group plans to sing a chorus from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
The U.S. team will seek to take advantage of the setting, cold weather and history.
Four consecutive victories, USSF President Sunil Gulati said, “is in our heads, and in theirs as well.”
The first and third Columbus meetings (2001 and 2009) also began the final stage, both on February nights. Friday’s game-time temperature is expected to be 43.
To prepare his young charges for the Mexico/Columbus experience, Klinsmann invited three retired U.S. players employed by the Crew to address the group. At the end of his speech, Frankie Hejduk did a cartwheel.
“I don’t know how many espresso shots he had,” current midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said.
Despite the Columbus hex, Mexico arrived in great position to take at least one point: a 12-1-2 record since Osorio took over 13 months ago and a growing stable of players aligned with European clubs.
“We have a good opportunity,” veteran defender Rafael Marquez said, “to change the story.”
United States vs. Mexico
Where: Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
When: 8 p.m. ET Friday.
TV: FS1, Univision.
Online: Fox Sports Go, univisiondeportes.com