When the schedule for the Final Round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup came around, the U.S. Soccer Federation had a different idea.
Drawn to play rivals Mexico first, and in February no less, the U.S. Soccer Federation decided to try and maximize home-field by taking advantage of the new phenomenon in the American game – the soccer specific stadium.
Columbus Crew Stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium) was the only one at the time, but with its smaller capacity and location in the heart of the Midwest, the venue proved a perfect spot for the U.S. to have its own unique home atmosphere in response to the heat, altitude and intensity that 100,000 fans at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City could provide.
“It was a tremendous atmosphere,” remembered U.S. forward Josh Wolff. “It was brutally cold. We had a fantastic crowd and there was a lot to play for. Obviously it’s a qualifier, but it’s even bigger when you’re playing against Mexico. It couldn’t have been any nicer – a chilly night that the Mexican players probably didn’t enjoy, but for us, it was probably a bit of gamesmanship. I think we were excited about the idea of playing in front of our fans on a nice cold night where we could take advantage of it.”
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Wolff didn’t start the match that night in late February 2001. When Bruce Arena selected him for the game-day 18, if he was to be used at all, the idea was more likely as a late-game sub.
After 15 minutes, things changed.
With Brian McBride’s right eye looking like he received a haymaker from Mike Tyson more than the clash of heads he took going up for a 50/50 ball, Wolff was called upon as his replacement and got his taste of the chippiness in the match when he was shown a yellow card for a foul on Rafael Carmona in the 40th minute.
He’d been joined on the field just before halftime by an old familiar face in Clint Mathis. Wolff’s former college teammate at the University of South Carolina was tapped to enter the game for Claudio Reyna, who pulled up with a groin injury after stepping to make a seemingly routine pass.
Having burned two subs to replace two of the side’s key players, Wolff and Mathis were certainly the unlikeliest of heroes for the second half, but they proved the odds wrong.
Just after the break, the South Carolina boys, who both hailed from neighboring Georgia, connected on what has become one of the more memorable goals in U.S. World Cup Qualifying history.
“The ball fell to Clint and Mexico was playing a pretty high line,” Wolff recalled. “Obviously I’d played with Clint for a number of years and we had a pretty good understanding of one another. It was just me taking a chance to run the line really well there.”
Mexico’s back line was so high that they were all pinching into the U.S. half of the field when Mathis quickly hit the ball into space for Wolff, who was a step inside the USA half of the midfield stripe.
“Clint hits a great ball over the top,” Wolff continued. “It’s a bit of a foot race with Jorge [Campos] and it was just one of those balls where it’s a 50/50 and I was able to come out with the other side of him. At that point, you just kind of roll it in the open goal and get on with the celebration. The goal was a scramble in the end, but it was a good way to start that game for me and helped fuel us the rest of the match.”
While El Tri went searching for the equalizer, Wolff would play a part in the Yanks second goal. Taking the ball deep into the Mexican half late in the match, Wolff split through two defenders and danced along the end line before centering a pass that an onrushing Earnie Stewart buried past Campos to seal the 2-0 victory and essentially begin the “Dos a Cero” tradition the U.S. continues to hold over Mexico.
While Wolff made his own personal mark on the international scene that night, the elements and intimate atmosphere saw the U.S. establish its own World Cup Qualifying ritual of bringing Mexico to Columbus – rain, sleet or shine.
“It’s like us going down to Mexico and playing at Azteca and it’s 100 degrees at altitude,” said Wolff. “It’s difficult. It’s something you’re not used to. For the Mexicans it was probably a little out of their element. We knew that. We understood that – that’s why the game was played in Columbus in February. We wanted to take advantage of every little opportunity to try and swing the game in our favor.
Four “Dos a Cero” World Cup Qualifying results later, the tradition is as strong as any in U.S. Men’s National Team history.