I'd like to say my favorite memory of Columbus Crew Stadium comes from one of the many memorable games that have been played there since it opened in May 1999.
I remember Steve Ralston's joyous sprint after scoring the first goal of a 2-0 defeat of Mexico that clinched the U.S. spot in the 2006 World Cup. I remember Dwayne De Rosario's overtime winner in the 2001 MLS Cup final played in a somber atmosphere cast by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. I remember shivering from the cold yet warmed by the faces of Columbus players, coaches and staff members celebrating the team's first trophy, which it captured by beating the Galaxy on its home field in the 2002 U.S. Open Cup final.
The trophy of that tournament now bears the name of the Lamar Hunt, who on that night downplayed any notion of personal accomplishment despite plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into soccer going back to his North American Soccer League days, and driving the effort to build the first MLS soccer-specific stadium.
"This isn't about me or the Hunt family, though of course we're delighted," he said, gesturing to his son, Clark, wearing a Crew scarf and beaming a broad smile. "This is for all of the people on our staff, and all the fans who have stuck with us. It's our home, and a home for U.S. Soccer as well."
The day before the stadium officially opened in 1999 with an MLS game against New England, Hunt personally led a tour for media members and special guests. He wasn't a man to dwell on pride, but he relished explaining every nuance and detail of this visionary accomplishment. He saw it, correctly, as the precursor to many such facilities, and once the Galaxy opened Home Depot Center four years later, the rush began to construct stadiums of the right size and the right "feel" for the game in America.
When I think of Columbus Crew Stadium, I think of that tour and Lamar Hunt, one of the most powerful men in professional sport giving his creation a topping of the personal touch. He died in 2006, and two years ago a Lamar Hunt statue was unveiled on the site. (There are also statues at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL Kansas City Chiefs, and FC Dallas Stadium.)
As corny as it is to say it, Lamar liked to keep an eye on things personally and in some way he still does.
The USA has a great track record in the Columbus stadium, including three consecutive qualifying wins over Mexico, starting with La Guerra Fria -- "The Cold War" -- and a 2-0 victory in February, 2001. Yet the record isn't perfect.
A rather ugly 0-0 tie with Costa Rica in 2000 was marred by some fans abusing the Costa Ricans and throwing objects onto the field. The final match of the semifinal round for 2006 qualification was played in Crew Stadium, and with the USA already qualified for the final round, it eliminated Jamaica from advancing to the Hexagonal with a 1-1 tie on a goal by Eddie Johnson.
Nearly eight years have elapsed since that game and great change has been wrought for Johnson and U.S. Soccer. So, too, for Jamaica, which on Tuesday has the opportunity for payback of a sort. By beating the USA for the first time, 2-1, in Kingston last Friday, it has taken over the group lead with seven points and dropped the Americans into a tie for second with Guatemala, which also has four points.
The Americans can't be eliminated from reaching the Hexagonal if they lose, but would need two wins in their last two matches and a lot of luck to advance. A tie will harm their chances as well. They really have to win to restore their place in the standings as well as their confidence, and they are in the right place to do it. In eight games at Crew Stadium, the Americans have conceded just that one goal to Jamaica.
At a public training session Sunday the players worked on a smooth, flat field quite different than the bumpy surface on which they struggled in Kingston. They took heart from the support of the 3,000 fans in attendance and Tuesday will feed on the energy of a sellout crowd, the fifth national-team match in the stadium to fill it. About 24,000 fans will be on hand, ESPN and Galavision will handle the national telecast, and one of the staunchest supporters the game has ever known in this country will be present as well.