08 September 2005

My Trip To Columbus

Rather than post a detailed analysis of the game, I decided to describe the experience of attending overall. And that began with a 180-mile drive. I tried to find friends to ride with, but that just didn't work, so I was on my own. (Next time, I'll buy tickets the instant they're for sale.) Actually Landry was gracious enough to allow me to use his ussoccer.com password for the presale, and that got me the key ticket. The drive was fine, until we got downtown in Columbus, where there was a crush of cars trying to get into the game. What US Soccer lacks in sheer numbers of fans, it more than makes up in their fanaticism.

The tailgating looked like a lot of fun, but I was a half-hour late due to the traffic, so I had to hustle into the stadium. The place was about 3/4 packed when I got in, and it was filling rapidly. I was in the corner, just a couple sections from Sam's Army and right next to an aisle filled with loud, happy Mexican fans.

The sun was setting as the players warmed up. It was a beautiful late-summer night, cloudless and warm. The stadium was buzzing with anticipation and chants (both US and Mexican). A moment of silence was called for the victims of Katrina, and the crowd slowly settled into a respectful quiet. Next came the national anthems, which were poorly done by a marching band (U of Dayton, I believe). I'm sure they played OK, but they were huddled together in the far end and we couldn't hear anything. Not a problem — the fans did the singing themselves. The whistle blew and we got things going.

I have no photos of the game itself; I couldn't tear myself away. The first half was gripping and tense — and the players showed it. Both sides were afraid of mistakes. Mexico had more of the posession, but didn't make any clear chances. That is, until the end of the half, when Ramon Morales took a powerful free kick that Kasey Keller did well to save. Halftime was tense and jittery; everyone could sense that the game could go either way.

The second half began just as tensely. Then came the foul and a US free kick. Eddie Lewis floated it in from 35 yards, and Oguichi Onyewu got a head to it, despite being crunched from both sides. It came back hard, off the post, but Steve Ralston was there to easily head it into the goal. Mexico had been sleeping and paid dearly. It was a scrappy goal that combined a great kick by Lewis, fine work under pressure by Gooch, and a heads-up play by Ralston. The US crowd — including me! — erupted with joy. It's one of my greatest moments all-time in sport.

As my screams wound down, I glanced to my right and saw the deflated Mexican fans. They looked beat. Maybe they knew that their team wasn't in a scoring mood. At any rate, they looked stunned. And their pessimism proved correct as the second goal came minutes later. DaMarcus Beasley found Claudio Reyna after a short corner, and Reyna's return ball found Beasley making a great diagonal run into the box. Mexican keeper Oswaldo Sanchez came out, but too late; Beasley rifled his shot over Sanchez's legs and into the goal.

And that was it. Mexico tried to make something happen, but never looked to pull back even one goal. As the clock wound on, more and more fans took up the chants of "Germany! Germany!" At 88 minutes, even I couldn't resist and joined in. The balance of noise shifted entirely to the US fans, and when the final whistle came, we erupted once more. And so did the players. They quickly found flags to wrap around themselves, and basked in the joy. Landon Donovan walked around screaming. Kasey Keller just grinned ear to ear. Frankie Hedjuk ripped off his shirt and wandered around in a daze, screaming and pumping his fists.

They began to head to the locker room, but Keller grabbed the players and pointed to the stands, and they did their well-deserved lap of victory. They took their time, personally thanking the US fans section by section, ending (of course) with Sam's Army. The Army was going nuts, shouting and dancing. Finally the players headed in to the locker room, for their well-earned champagne showers.

I don't know how many of the fans will make it to Germany. I do know that it's painful to imagine not being there. After seeing the excitement and love the US fans can bring to the team, and how well it's returned, I'd love to be there. Maybe I can work it out. But for now, I'm content to know that I was able to support my country in a great atmosphere and see us get qualified for the World Cup.

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