COLUMBUS, Ohio — Every four years, Ohio is a battleground state instrumental in determining America’s course on the global stage. It’s every bit as true in soccer as it is in politics. On Tuesday night, the United States Men’s National Team continued its history of important, quadrennial success at Columbus Crew Stadium, defeating Jamaica, 1-0, in a World Cup qualifying match that put the Americans firmly back into control of their own destiny. A 28-yard free kick goal by Herculez Gomez in the 55th minute proved to be the difference.
The victory avenged Friday’s 2-1 loss to the Reggae Boyz in Kingston, which was Jamaica’s first-ever victory over the U.S. That loss had upped the ante for the Americans, prompting Clint Dempsey to declare Tuesday’s game a must-win. Having done so, the Americans (2-1-1) are in a three-way tie atop the qualifying group, along with Jamaica and Guatemala. The top two teams will advance to the final qualifying stage.
“We are back on track,” said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “It’s not done yet. We know it’s down to the wire. That’s what World Cup qualifying is all about.”
Following a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by “X Factor” star and Columbus resident Josh Krajick, accompanied by a backing choir of 23,881 star-spangled fans, as well as a roaring ovation for three 9/11 first responders that were honored before an emotional moment of silence on the 11th anniversary of the terror attacks, the atmosphere at kickoff had the Americans at full-throttle from the opening whistle.
It would be wrong to say that Jamaica had no answer for the American onslaught in the first 45 minutes, but the answers they found didn’t go much beyond their goalkeeper, Dwayne Miller, and the benevolent bounces provided by the goalposts. Or, as Steve Cherundolo learned in the 20th minute, sometimes a combination of both on the same shot.
In Jamaica, the U.S. struggled with a bumpy playing surface, prompting American striker Herculez Gomez to quip, “There was better grass in the stands than there was on the field.” The Yanks encountered no such impediments on Tuesday. Crew Stadium’s immaculate surface allowed them to play with more precision.
“We knew tonight that the surface was there and that it’s easier to play a cleaner, technical game,” said Klinsmann.
Cherundolo’s return from injury also gave the Americans the overlapping width that was missing on Friday. From the opening minutes, he worked the right flank, serving crosses into the Jamaican penalty area. In the 12th minute, he hit Gomez in the chest with a long pass more befitting of Peyton Manning. Jamaican defender Lovel Palmer knocked Gomez to the ground, but reasonable appeals for a penalty were denied.
The Americans hit the woodwork on three separate occasions in the opening half. Midfielder Graham Zusi skimmed the crossbar three minutes into the game. In the 20th minute, Cherundolo played a frustrating game of pinball that saw his shot deflected, saved, and then pushed off of the post. And then in the 30th minute, midfielder Danny Williams unleashed a long-distance strike that smacked off of the inside of the post and caromed across the front of the goal.
“I think the only thing that was missing there was the goal,” Klinsmann said of the first half. “We said at halftime to keep pushing and you will make your luck. I know from my career as a striker that you can’t get frustrated.”
Fed a steady diet of near misses, the excited tension in the crowd built to the point that a U.S. goal would produce a Krakatoa-like explosion. Central Ohio erupted in the 55th minute, when Gomez curled a 28-yard free kick around the Jamaican wall, off the gloves of Miller, and into the side netting. It’s a save that Miller should have made, but after the first half, Gomez felt no need to apologize.
“I think I got a little fortunate,” Gomez said, “but after all the chances in the first half, I think we deserved a little bit of fortune.”
The Americans would gut out the rest of the game with little of the offensive thrust that made the first hour so thrilling. Jamaica would force one diving save out of Tim Howard, a headed goal line clearance from Cherundolo, and apply enough pressure to make the game feel that it could turn on one mistake, but the Yanks were clean enough to close out the victory.
“We can’t be happy about the performance in the second half, but we are ecstatic about the three points,” Cherundolo said. “I don’t think anyone can argue that we didn’t deserve it tonight.”
The win reinforced Crew Stadium’s reputation as a fortress for the National Team in its most important games. The Americans are now 5-0-2 all-time in World Cup qualifying in Central Ohio, including a trio of 2-0 victories over rival Mexico. In a game that they needed to win, the players once again fed off of the energy of the raucous, pro-American crowd that Crew Stadium always provides.
“We were talking inside (the locker room),” said Howard, “and there’s no bigger home-field advantage for us in America than here.”
Williams, who plies his trade in Germany’s Bundesliga, which is one of the top leagues in the world, came away impressed by his first visit to Columbus.
“I’ve never seen something like this,” he said. “The crowd was amazing….I have played in front of emotional fans in Germany, but never anything like this. Their 24,000 felt like 50 or 60,000.”
The Americans conclude this round of qualifying with a visit to last-place Antigua & Barbuda on October 12, followed by an October 16 home match against Guatemala in Kansas City. The schedule is favorable, but there are no certainties in World Cup qualifying.
“We find ourselves in a good position now,” Dempsey said, “but we got a lot of work ahead of us— two important games. We’ve got to make sure we get the right results to advance to the next round”
If the Americans advance, Columbus Crew president and general manager Mark McCullers made it abundantly clear that Crew Stadium is ready and willing to host more important games.
“USA still undefeated at Crew Stadium!” McCullers tweeted after the final whistle. “USA – when you need 3, come home to Crew Stadium!”