As we now stand just a week away from USA v. Mexico in Columbus, kicking off the hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, let us take a trip back to a frigid night in February of 2001. It was a match that birthed a bit of folklore and launched a legend that few could have ever foreseen.
Funny enough, it was the opening match of the hex, the United States hosting Mexico at Crew Stadium in Columbus for the first time. What had been a straightforward story of Mexican dominance for decades had turned into a budding rivalry in the years leading up to this qualifying cycle.
As the two sides took to the pitch that evening, there was a palpable tension in the air. Something felt different. Was it the cold? Was it the packed Crew Stadium? Was it the raucous pro-USA crowd, something nobody was familiar with? Perhaps it was a combination of all three.
Most remember February 28, 2001 as a famous night in the history of American soccer. The first 45 minutes however were excruciating, not as much for the fans as the players themselves. One man in particular was feeling the pain of the fiercely contested affair.
Just eleven minutes into the game, Mexico’s Rafa Marquez (who would go on to play against the Yanks just a few more times in his career) lunged off a backpedal for a ball in the air. U.S. Soccer’s version of Rocky Balboa, an English based forward named Brian McBride, leaped for the challenge. The two players heads collided.
Marquez took a slight knock to the back of his cranium on the play, which had smashed into the right eye of McBride. Like something out of Raging Bull, McBride’s eye looked like a golf ball that listened to too much Gogol Bordello before turning to a 1977 Elvis impersonator. It was purple, puffy, fluffy, and gruesome.
“I can’t see out of my right eye,” McBride said as he sprinted to treatment on the touchline.
There may be no tougher player in the annals of the U.S. Men’s National Team, but even McBride knew his night was over, not even fifteen minutes after it had begun. It was a tough break for Head Coach Bruce Arena, who looked to the bench and saw a hungry young speedster three days past his 24th birthday.
That player was Josh Wolff, and as McBride’s impromptu replacement, he’d have plenty to say before this winter evening ran its course.
In the 36th minute, Rafa Marquez gave Wolff a warm welcome to the match, a season’s greetings in the form of a studs over challenge to the high shin preceded by both men moving close to full speed straight toward one another. By the modern interpretation of the rules, Marquez would have been sent off. But this was 2001. These were the good old days, the Wild West, a time when gunslingers, gamblers, and filthy challenges in the center of the park were simply par for the course in the soccer world. Marquez was shown a yellow card.
A few minutes later, Wolff himself was given a yellow toned caution for a perceived stamp from behind on Mexico’s Salvador Carmona. The horrific screams that left the mouth of Carmona may have played a part in the referee’s decision. Either way, Wolff was rapidly becoming the youngster beneath the spotlight on a grand footballing occasion. There was an attitude developing. There was an aura emerging.
Just before the halftime break, the man affectionately known as “Captain America” was withdrawn due to injury, midfield stalwart Claudio Reyna being replaced by the much maligned and often misunderstood Clint Mathis. Arena had not only lost two of his three substitutions, but arguably his two best outfield players, with two lesser-known quantities hopping into what had become a predictably nasty contest.
Little did Bruce Arena, or any U.S. fan for that matter, know that those two forced substitutions would turn out to be the launching pad for what is now known as the American Soccer equivalent of scripture.
Exactly one minute had been played since the restart. Rafa Marquez had already been the brunt of a crunching challenge from U.S. midfielder Chris Armas. As the clock hit 46:00, Mathis found the ball kindly floating down toward his right boot. With a quick trap and one sublime swing while standing deep in his own half, Mathis sent an audacious, long, searching, slicing ball with the outside of his foot up and over the Mexican backline and into the path of a streaking Wolff, who had timed his run to perfection. Wolff was onside and in behind the last defender as he gave chase, yearning to get on the end of the marvelous look from Mathis.
Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos (who unlike his counterpart, Ohio native Brad Friedel, was not wearing shorts on this freezing night, instead opting for long pants and top layers of iconic bright-colored keeper tops) came flying out to meet Wolff, at least thirty yards off his line as he seemed to get to the ball simultaneously. It ricocheted back off of Wolff, sending the pacey lad through toward an empty goal as Campos sat helplessly on his knees. The rotation of the earth slowed down for a few seconds as Wolff strangely spun in a full circle to find the soccer ball that was trickling beneath him, took a touch, and calmly slotted the thing home, sending Crew Stadium into absolute delirium.
Wolff wasn’t finished.
Paco Palencia had the best chance to equalize for El Tri, a near post blast that was thwarted by Friedel, a late nudge from a trailing Jeff Agoos also doing its part to put the long-haired Palencia off just enough.
With 86 minutes gone, even with the Americans defending valiantly and doing their best to control the game, the outcome was most certainly still in question. Seconds later came a piece of blessed determination from a tenacious member of the Canidae family.
Wolff held the ball in the corner, surely planning on doing everything he could to keep it there. Two Mexican defenders were nipping at his heels, pinning him close to the corner flag, seemingly with nowhere to go.
What came next was something so silky that it could have been an early 90’s R&B group.
Like the ball was glued to his foot, Wolff spun away from the two defenders with a center of gravity so low that he almost looked like he was about to drop to a crawl. Turbo buttons were then pressed. Nitrous-oxide was pumped into the engine. Wolff darted along the goal-line, holding off the trailing defender before finally sucking Campos away from the near post as the orange clad portero made a desperate dive to the striker’s feet. Wolff delicately released the ball back toward the center as he tumbled to the floor. Racing in with a vengeance to put it home after seeing the play develop over the prior seconds was Earnie Stewart. The Dutch-American star scored some stunners in his time with the national team. This tap in had to feel as good as any thunderbolt ever did.
Stewart’s celebration said it all. He jogged straight over to Wolff, who was standing by himself behind the goal. The rest of the U.S. players followed suit. It was Wolff’s goal. It was Wolff’s game. It was the American’s night.
When the final whistle blew, there couldn’t have been anyone apart from a wannabe Nostradamus in the building who could have possibly predicted that fifteen years later, the 2-0 final scoreline from this night would be something of a legend.
The U.S. have beaten Mexico 2-0 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the University of Phoenix Stadium, and of course the Jeonju Stadium, where Bruce Arena’s side knocked Mexico out of the World Cup in 2002.
But it’s in Columbus, Ohio, at the United States’ first ever soccer specific professional stadium where that scoreline is far more than just a chant. Four straight times now, in four different World Cup Qualifying cycles, the Yanks have prevailed 2-0.
If 2016 has taught the sporting world one thing, it’s that curses are meant to be broken. We shall see if Mexico can snap the streak, or at the very least score a goal for the first time in Columbus. But even if luck changes hands and scripts are flipped, no one can ever take away the folklore.
It all started on February 28, 2001, that night when the Wolff howled at the moon and the moon howled back. “Dos a cero,” it said.