An hour after the final whistle, as Honduras hung on for a tie and clinched a World Cup berth for the USMNT, the Americans spilled out of the locker room and back onto the pitch to celebrate. The fans chanted "Clint missed on purpose," and Dempsey smiled and danced. Maybe he did. This is Columbus, after all, the official home of Dos a Cero.
After a quiet first half, the scoring was opened up by Eddie Johnson, who has somewhat inexplicably become a beast in WC qualifiers. This soaring header, served up on a silver platter by Landon Donovan, was his 12th goal in 21 appearances.
Donovan was there for the dagger too, but that was all Mix Diskerud, a 76th-minute sub for Johnson, who left with an apparent head injury. Just two minutes later, the Norwegian-born midfielder restated his Brazil candidacy with a delightful little chip through three Mexican defenders, and a laser-guided cross across the goalmouth to Donovan. 2-0, a familiar scoreline for both teams, and for Columbus.
How did Columbus become the U.S.'s favorite stomping ground? To put it crudely: it doesn't have a lot of Mexicans.
Tired of matches in Southern California and Florida and the East Coast looking and sounding like a home game for El Tri, then-coach Bruce Arena pushed U.S. Soccer to find a venue that would provide a solid American crowd and cold temperatures. Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in the country, fit the bill, offering below-freezing temperatures at kickoff for the World Cup qualifier in February 2001. Josh Wolff was the hero that day, scoring once and assisting on Earnie Stewart's tap-in. Dos a cero was born.
After another 2-0 victory in the knockout stage of the 2002 World Cup, the teams returned to Columbus for a 2005 qualifier. Three points would clinch a trip to Germany, and that's exactly what the USMNT got. Goals from Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley made it 2-0 again, and the U.S. celebrated on the pitch as the Mexicans watched.
By now the quadrennial Columbus match is as secure as any U.S. Soccer tradition. They hosted Mexico again four years later, this time in wind and rain and hail, and again walked away with the 2-0 victory.
So when Donovan finished from Diskerud last night, the chants of "dos a cero" rang out. But when Clint Dempsey was taken out in the box during stoppage time, it provided one of the great moral dilemmas in American soccer history. Root for the penalty conversion and twist the dagger? Or root for the miss and preserve the scoreline?
An awful strike, even for Dempsey, who's not a natural penalty taker. Was it on purpose? Cobi Jones thought so. The fans who stuck around to celebrate with the team thought so. Dempsey wasn't saying.
It doesn't matter. (Except to Mexico, currently tied in the Hex with Panama with two matches remaining, and it could come down to goal differential.) Dos a cero was fated, even if fate required an assist from a gassed and inaccurate Dempsey. That's just what happens in Columbus.
"It's become its own monster. People want to come to Columbus and see U.S.-Mexico. It's almost like the mecca really for us," Tim Howard said last night. "You almost feel like it's our destiny to win here."
We'll see if that continues to hold true in four years and, hopefully, two goals.