OBETZ, Ohio – Repeatedly, athletes say that most aspects of rivalries, psychological games and other narratives surrounding important contests are manufactured by fans or the media.
But as US national team players train in advance of another World Cup qualifying home match against Mexico in Columbus (Friday, 7:45 pm ET, FS1, Univision), none of them are downplaying the importance of facing El Tri at the intimate stadium that’s become the team’s fortress.
The national team have never lost to Mexico in Columbus, where results have finished 2-0 (popularly known as "dos a cero" to USMNT fans) in each of the five matches since 2001. And while fans in Seattle, Kansas City and other emerging soccer towns clamor to host Mexico in a qualifier of their own, US Soccer shows no indications of leaving MAPFRE Stadium.
“It should always be here; this is where it belongs,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “This is USA-Mexico. We’ve finally got that in our back pocket, a place we feel comfortable and feel at home. The temperature is dropping [which is] good for us, and I’m sure they won’t like that. So this is all great. We love coming to Columbus.”
Friday will be Howard’s third Mexico match in Columbus, and says he isn’t sure whether the building gets into Mexican players’ heads.
“I’ve not asked any of them what they think and I don’t think they’d tell me the truth,” he said. “But the results, I think, tell us the true story.”
For Sacha Kljestan, who is on the roster for his first Mexico clash in Columbus since 2009, the MAPFRE Stadium environment is more about a boost for the Yanks.
“I think it’s more in our heads [than theirs],” he said. “We have a lot of confidence when we come here. We come here knowing we’ve won the past four here, we’ve shut them out, we’ve had good performances, great home support. The weather is always a little chilly, which kind of plays into our hands. So more so than them, for us we just have this huge sense of confidence when we come to Columbus.”
While tempers often flare in match-ups between the rivals, USMNT players say there’s no ill will toward their opponents.
US defender Omar Gonzalez, who is of Mexican descent and currently plays in Liga MX for Pachuca, said the rivalry is a respectful one.
"I don't hate Mexico, but I don't want to lose against them,” he said. “I'm a Mexican-American, and I have a lot of family in Mexico. This game is very important for me. So, I don't hate the Mexicans; there is a lot of respect.”
But that respect doesn’t get in the way of what is almost always a cagey affair, and the players expect a home field advantage they don’t get anywhere else in the country.
“It’s not the biggest stadium; it’s intimate,” Gonzalez said. “But it’s loud and people are close to the pitch. It’s going to be great.”
Howard played in two of the four 2-0 qualifying wins over El Tri at MAPFRE to date, and while he said much of the colorful atmosphere fades into “one big blur,” one particular quirk of the venue lingers in his mind.
“I think I always remember the sound of the metal bleachers, which a lot of stadiums don't have,” he said. “It's kind of special and unique to Columbus and I have no doubt they'll be banged on again this weekend.”