By Michael Lewis
From the outside it looks like a giant toy construction set, but for the U.S. national team, it has been the coziest of homes.
The team has thrived at Columbus Crew Soccer Stadium over the past decade.
So, it should not be surprising that the U.S. Soccer Federation choose the 22,500-seat, soccer-specific stadium as the venue for its World Cup qualifying confrontation against Mexico on February 11.
Actually, it was an obvious choice, given the past results with Mexico.
In minus-2 degrees Celsius (29 degrees Fahrenheit) on February 28, 2001, the U.S. registered a surprising 2-0 victory in a game Mexican media dubbed La Guerra Fria (the Cold War).
In more summery weather on September 3, 2005, the Americans prevailed yet again to clinch a spot at the 2006 World Cup in Germany by the same score.
The stadium has allowed the U.S. to replicate some of the gamesmanship that many of its CONCACAF counterparts engage in, scheduling matches in far from ideal conditions.
"I think it's going to be a long time before anything tops that," former Crew general manager Jim Smith said. "For me, that was the benchmark for what fans can do for soccer."
The Americans are undefeated in Columbus, winning four of seven international matches and three of five World Cup qualifiers.
"The national team has enjoyed a great history there, and the team has always appreciated the fantastic support from the fans," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "We are looking forward to an incredible atmosphere as we continue the difficult task of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa."
In the past, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has jokingly threatened to play World Cup qualifiers in Alaska. Columbus, Ohio, is a little more practical.
"Our first priority is to give our team the best chance to be successful and achieve the goal of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, and Columbus Crew Stadium has always been a great venue for the national team," he said. "We carefully considered our options, and ultimately we felt that playing in Columbus is the right fit for this match."
The stadium is home to the Columbus Crew, reigning MLS regular-season and playoff (MLS Cup) champions. While the team played at the cavernous stadium that housed Ohio State University's American football team during the Crew's first three years of existence, club owner Lamar Hunt and management looked for a municipality and a piece of land to call home.
They found it and the stadium was opened on May 15, 1999. It was the stadium built specifically for a Major League Soccer team.
Long a bold innovator with vision, Hunt was one of the original team owners in the gridiron American Football League and also was the club of the North American Soccer League's Dallas Tornado.
Despite several setbacks in trying to build their dream house, Hunt Sports Group persevered. Using $25 million of Hunt's money (the final cost of the project was $31 million), the Crew was awarded a 25-year lease for a stadium to be built on the grounds of the Ohio Expo Center and State Fairgrounds.
"This sport needs to be intimate," Hunt said in an interview before he died in 2006. "Spectators need to be close to the field. That's one area in which we took a risk in Columbus."
While it may lack the amenities of other newer facilities, MLS took an important first and giant step to have more intimate stadiums for its spectators. The new grounds have allowed teams to schedule games on their timetable, not on those of other teams' in other sports, and generate revenue from things like parking and concessions that have helped turn red ink into black.
Since Columbus Crew Soccer Stadium was constructed, six more MLS grounds have been built.
The list includes the Home Depot Center in Carson, California (home of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA) in 2003, Pizza Hut Park (FC Dallas) in 2005, Toyota Park (Chicago Fire) in Bridgeview, Illinois in 2006, Dick's Sporting Goods Park (Colorado Rapids) in Commerce City, Colorado, and BMO Field (Toronto FC), both in 2007 and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah (Real Salt Lake) in 2008. Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, is the next one due to open, likely in 2010.
And it all started with that Spartan-looking building next to Interstate 71.
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