Welcome to Fort Columbus

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Tim Howard, Goalkeeper / USMNT - The Players' Tribune

I’m going to say something about Columbus, Ohio, that’s probably never been said before.

Are you ready for it?

Columbus, Ohio, has a mystique.

Yep, that’s right.

Not Los Angeles. Not New York City. But smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-the-United-States Columbus, Ohio.

A lot of you probably got to know my teammates and me from what we did more than 5,000 miles away when we made it to the round of 16 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. And while World Cup matches are important, there are probably no games more important to the guys who pull on a U.S. Soccer jersey than the ones we play against Mexico.

So it’s fitting, really, that the last round of qualifiers for our 2018 World Cup journey begins against Mexico, and right where we want it:

In mystical Columbus, Ohio.

It actually took us all a while to get here. I’m not one to give out a history lesson, but let me just say, when we first started playing Mexico in 1934, well, things weren’t good. Other than that first match where we won 4–2, it would take 46 years for us to get another win over El Tri.

Forty-six years.

Again, for those of you who only started to take notice of the USMNT in 2014, that may seem a little surprising. But that’s because things are a little different now. We’re pretty good. And Mexico isn’t too happy about it. The dominance of CONCACAF has turned in our favor in recent years, but it wasn’t always that way. And perhaps worst of all, when we hosted Mexico in the U.S. you couldn’t tell from the supporters in the stands.

They were all wearing red, white and green.

As a kid, I grew up watching the USMNT, and I vividly remember watching the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan at my mom’s house. I’d sleep on the couch because the games were on so early and I didn’t want to wake anyone up. And when I watched the U.S. beat Mexico 2–0 in the round of 16, I was silently jumping up and down in my pajamas. I remember seeing the demoralized faces of Mexico’s side because we had taken it to them so well. It was like we had sent a message.

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I wasn’t there the first time the U.S. played Mexico in Columbus in 2001. When I joined the USMNT for my first camp, Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel told me all about playing Mexico — what it meant, what was at stake. Whenever we’d play Mexico at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, the El Tri supporters were unreal (the U.S. has only won once there). But when they came here, it felt like we were playing a neutral-site game. When I laced up for my very first match against Mexico in 2003, I looked around at the crowd in Houston. For as far as we had come as a team, let’s just say it still didn’t feel like a home game. We drew 0–0.

There are probably no games more important to the guys who pull on a U.S. Soccer jersey than the ones we play against Mexico.

That started to change though over the next few years with “Dos a Cero”— when almost every time we won it was by a score of 2–0, including all three games in Columbus. And our win in 2013, well, that was unlike anything I had ever been a part of.  This game wasn’t just about the rivalry — it had massive implications. If we won and Honduras and Panama tied in their qualifier, we would be on our way to the World Cup. Goals from Eddie Johnson in the 49th minute, and Landon Donovan in 78th minute booked our ticket to Brazil.

The victory was awesome, but what happened after the match was even more incredible. We headed back to the locker room, cheering and yelling, and got our postgame words from Jurgen Klinsmann. Then we sat on the floor and watched the end of the Honduras-Panama game. They drew 2–2, and when the final whistle blew we went back out to the pitch.

We had been in that locker room for 90 minutes watching the match. And still when we came back out, there were thousands of U.S. soccer fans who had stayed to celebrate with us. In the 10 years I had been playing with the USMNT, I’d never seen anything like it.

So for my teammates and me, “Fort Columbus” has sort of become our spiritual home, and playing our biggest rival there? Well, it’s a rite of passage.

Every time we play Mexico, I try to convince myself that it’s just like any other match.

But it’s not.

And I guess what I’m saying is, we need you guys there.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret. Just before we head out onto the field before every game against Mexico in Columbus, both teams stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, in the tunnel. There’s some yelling, some guys trying to get pumped up, but really you’re just puffing out your chest trying to make it look like you’re not scared. I actually relish the nerves and anxiety, but yeah, it’s there.

So when we’re all standing in that dark tunnel ready to walk out, we’re all — both U.S. and Mexican players — listening to one sound: more than 24,000 U.S. fans banging on those metal bleachers in Mapfre stadium.

And then it’s time to go.

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To be honest, it’s probably the last sound I can truly make out before I walk out onto the pitch and take my spot between the posts. I completely zone out during the game. I can’t really hear the noise anymore, but I can feel it. And when I turn around and see that section behind the goals, it seems to go up and up and up, almost touching the sky and filled with supporters.

And they’re all wearing red, white and blue.

It overwhelms our opponent, and we love it.

We have finally found a home here in Columbus, Ohio. The stadium was the first soccer-specific venue in the U.S. and, sure, as times have changed. There have been other stadiums that have been built since, and they’re probably more up to date. They’re probably better looking, too, but they just don’t have that … mystique.

“Fort Columbus” has sort of become our spiritual home.

As we walk around town on the days before a match against Mexico, you can just feel it.

I’m an old dog now, so I’ve got my routine. When we’re in Columbus, that means going to this one little spot in town that serves the best cup of coffee. But I can’t tell you where it is, because then everyone will know all about it.

And some places need to keep their mystique.

The Rivalry

To play against your rival for a chance to go to the Confederations Cup is a huge moment. You don’t get many opportunities in your career to play for a trophy, and this is a chance for our players to write a piece of history. We will be ready.

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