This story initially appeared on SI.com in September 2013. It has been slightly edited to reflect events that have transpired since then.
There certainly have been bigger wins in American soccer history, but few have had a greater long-term impact than the original “La Guerra Fria” back in February 2001, when the U.S. defeated Mexico in a World Cup qualifier at Crew Stadium.
The game provided the U.S. with a priceless blueprint for a genuine home-field advantage, it cemented the national team as a regional power, and it went a long way toward validating the construction of soccer-specific stadiums. That victory continues to resonate today, as the U.S. will stage its home qualifier against Mexico in Columbus for the fifth consecutive time on Friday night (7:45 p.m. ET, FS1, Univision).
If that 2001 game helped to shape American soccer, then American soccer has Josh Wolff to thank. The Georgia-born forward, who had just turned 24, started that frigid evening on the bench but ended it as a hero, scoring the opening goal and setting up the second as the U.S. celebrated “dos a cero” for the first time.
Now an assistant coach in Columbus with Crew SC, Wolff spent a few minutes with SI.com prior to the most recent World Cup qualifying victory in the rivalry reminiscing about that unforgettable night in U.S. soccer history.
The game-time temperature fell below freezing, which played directly into the host’s hands. The U.S. and coach Bruce Arena wanted Mexico to be uncomfortable, and it was–El Tri even opted to stay inside its locker room rather than take the field to warm up.
Wolff:“We were absolutely aware of the effort to try and swing those elements–the crowd, the weather–in our favor. I’m sure it was all built into the [venue selection] process. Having said that, you have to go out as a group and deliver. For me, it was my first time coming through qualifying. The older guys, the Earnie Stewarts and Brian McBrides, they may reflect on it differently. It was all new for me, but you still realized this was a change of pace. You play against these teams, even in America sometimes it was a not-so-friendly environment. But those fans [in Columbus] came in with energy. This was a real change of pace. Being a young guy, I heard from the coaches and the senior players and I just knew. You knew it and you felt it.”
Change of Plans
Rafa Márquez did the damage–not surprisingly–and McBride took a blow to the face–not surprisingly–and suddenly, Wolff the reserve was on the field for the biggest game of his life. The substitution came in just the 15th minute.
Wolff:“When you’re thrown in like that, you don’t have much time to think and sometimes that’s a good thing. That’s how opportunity arrives sometimes, whether it’s injury or sometimes just late in a game. You’ve got to get up to speed quickly. I’d played a handful of games with these guys [it was his fifth cap] and was familiar to some degree. You’re a young guy and you’re excited and energized by the moment. But it is good to be thrown in there without having a chance to think about it."
The First Chance
In the 19th minute, Joe-Max Moore beat a trio of El Tri defenders on the right and hit a low cross that Wolff managed to reach at the near post. He didn’t get much on the shot, however, and the ball trickled wide.
Wolff: “It got me going and got the juices going. You knew you were in a real match right away.”
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In the 36th, Márquez was at it again. He cleaned out Wolff with a high, lunging tackle in midfield. Three minutes later, Wolff took his frustration out on Mexico defender Salvador Carmona, chopping him down along the left sideline. Both plays resulted in yellow cards.
Wolff:“We have to set our own little tone and demeanor. Bruce was always adamant about that. You don’t just take it. You’ve got to deliver some blows, obviously in the right way. It was another little piece that lets you know what kind of match you’re in. When you’re a forward, there’s very few chances when you get to deliver one. Don’t be dirty about it, but you’re not there to just wear it for 90 minutes. There are opportunities to get guys and you leave a foot in there, and elbow in there, just to let them know it’s not going to be just a one-way game. That’s the nature of the business. You have to live up to that end as best you can, just showing your commitment and that you’re in it."
There was more injury trouble for the U.S. in the 43rd, when captain Claudio Reyna exited and was replaced by Clint Mathis–Wolff’s former teammate at the University of South Carolina. Their chemistry was evident almost immediately.
Two minutes into the second half, Mathis hit a gorgeous pass over the top of the Mexican defense. Wolff beat goalkeeper Jorge Camps to the ball and slid it into the empty net. It was his second international goal. For all of McBride’s qualities, only the speedy Wolff would have finished off that play.
Wolff:“I still put Clint up there with the more special players I played with. I don’t think enough people got to see him for what he really was worth, both physically and his brain. That play, Clint and I played together for a number of years and know each other’s strengths. That was two guys being on the same page at the moment, two guys being aware of who they are and what the situation is.”
The U.S. held on to its slim lead for 40 minutes, helped by a point-blank, 69th-minute save by Brad Friedel on Francisco Palencia. In the 87th, Wolff worked more magic, executing a brilliant turn along the right touchline and dribbling toward the near post before laying a pass back for Stewart to finish. The Mexican defender whom Wolff destroyed on the play, Alberto Macías, never played for El Tri again.
Wolff:“It’s one of those plays where the ball gets dumped in the corner, I’m under pressure and I’m thinking there’s not much I can [do] besides try to get a throw-in or a corner kick. It’s just me trying to take a little bit of a chance, flip the ball behind myself and see if I can pull it off. … It was a nice way to cap off the night, down in front of our fans. It was pretty emotional after that.
The U.S. would qualify for the 2002 World Cup with a 5-3-2 record and met Mexico again in the round-of-16 in Jeonju, South Korea. At that point, there was no doubt in the U.S. camp that it could defeat El Tri on neutral ground. Wolff started that day and assisted on McBride’s opener with a smart pass from the end line. The U.S. went on to win by the now-traditional score of 2-0.
Wolff:“[The win in Columbus] gave you a sense of belief and a sense of understanding of what these games are like, that we should be competing to win any game anywhere, home or away … Absolutely based on that result we felt very good about [the round-of-16 game] and doing the business that day. It’s hostile. It’s a big competition, but you deliver the blows that really matter and make the plays that swing the game in your favor. I think two years of preparing put us in a mentally stronger place and made us more prepared for that game than we would have been in the past.”
Wolff’s international career ended in 2008. He amassed 52 caps and nine goals. His club career concluded after 15 seasons with the Chicago Fire, Kansas City Wizards, Germany's 1860 Munich and finally D.C. United. He won two CONCACAF Gold Cups, three U.S. Open Cups and one MLS Cup. But it is that night in Columbus that will linger longest in the minds of many U.S. fans.
Wolff:“It was our first soccer-specific stadium. It’s not an unbelievable stadium compared to today’s standard, but it was the first of its kind and it has a massive importance to our sport, to MLS as well as the U.S. national team. A lot of props go around for that result. … I’ll see the video from time to time. You see little clips on TV. My kids will see it–they’ve got it on YouTube, they’re own little hand-helds. I’ve certainly seen it enough to be able to recall it. My kids, they enjoy seeing dad in the old days as well. That’s good to see. I tell them that the footage is a little grainy, but you can still see some quality in there!”