How do you describe an aura, the atmosphere and power of a sold-out, deafening stadium?
It’s hard to put into words.
Fortunately, we have the loquacious and passionate Frankie Hejduk to fill us in. We caught up with Frankie on Thursday afternoon at MAPFRE Stadium, as the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) practiced before tonight’s all-important game against Mexico in the Final Round of Qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Let’s just say Frankie was charged up, and looked ready to fly out on the field and make a few sliding tackles.
“It’s really hard not to run out there, especially for this game,” Frankie said.
MAPFRE has become the home field – and home-field advantage – of the USMNT and has helped put Columbus on the map of international soccer (or football). This is the fifth time MAPFRE, the country’s first soccer-specific stadium, has hosted the USMNT’s home game against Mexico in the Final Round of World Cup qualifying. The U.S. has won each of the four previous games by a 2-0 score, creating the now iconic “Dos a Cero” nickname. The 2005 and 2013 wins secured the USMNT’s spot in the World Cup.
“We finally have a stadium we can call home,” said Frankie, a former Crew SC star and captain and member of the USMNT. He’s now the Crew SC’s brand ambassador.
What does Frankie mean by a home?
“Mexico has Azteca Stadium,” he said of the 87,000-seat venue in Mexico City. “We’ve won once there in the history of U.S. Soccer and tied them once. That’s a home-field advantage, and now we have that here, with our recent history and Dos a Cero.”
When the USMNT plays in cities such as Miami and Los Angeles, in larger stadiums than MAFPRE, the crowd mix is different.
“(The U.S.) is such a melting pot of every culture and in Miami or Los Angeles the mix might be 70-30 or 80-20 in favor of Mexican fans,” Frankie said.
Not in Columbus.
“The crowd is 100 percent behind you here, not 99 percent,” Frankie said. “And in this smaller stadium, our fans make it feel a lot bigger … one of the players, after the last time (in 2013), told me it seemed like there were 80,000 or 90,000 fans here.”
MAPFRE is loud.
The USMNT is unbeaten in 11 matches at MAPFRE Stadium, with an 8-0-3 record. Nine of the matches have been World Cup qualifiers and U.S. is 7-0-2 in these games. In the most recent World Cup qualifier at MAPFRE, the U.S. beat Guatemala 4-0 on March 29.
Now that’s a home-field advantage.
USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann invited Frankie and a few other former USMNT players to talk to the team earlier this week.
“I don’t want to say too much about what was said behind closed doors,” Frankie said. “I told them we were behind them and living vicariously through them.”
“He’s so positive and he gave us a good history lesson about playing here,” said Sacha Kljestan, a midfielder who played in the 2009 game here against Mexico. That game was played in February, on a very cold night, which was an advantage for the U.S.
It’s expected to drop down to about 44 degrees at game time, ending an unusual November warm spell.
“We get pretty excited every time it’s a little chilly here,” Kljestan said.
He isn’t the only member of the USMNT who understands the MAPFRE mystique.
“There will be fans here from all 50 states, which will be incredible,” said USMNT defender Omar Gonzalez. “It’s not the biggest stadium, but it’s intimate and loud and people are close to the pitch and Friday were looking for a raucous fan base and we’re ready to go.”
Nov. 11 is Veterans Day and U.S. Soccer has several events planned to honor our nation’s veterans. Four servicemen who now play on the U.S. Paralympic National Team will take part in a march to MAPFRE that will be featured live on U.S. Soccer’s Facebook account.
When the U.S. team walks out onto the pitch, fans will take part in a patriotic “stadium card stunt.” The flip side of every card will be printed with a commemorative poster. During the playing of the National Anthem a flag that fills the entire field will be unfurled and held by 125 veterans and active members of the military
The importance of the match, the MAPFRE advantage, all the festivities for fans and the history of Dos a Cero will add up to make tonight’s match something special. If you’re not one of the 25,000 fans lucky enough to have tickets, you can watch the game on FS1 or Univision.
“The last time around (in 2013) I didn’t see one person sitting,” Frankie said. “It was cold and rainy and windy and people got together and were chanting and signing. You may not have known the person sitting next to you, but for that game he’s your best friend.”
Imagine what it would be like if the person sitting next to you was Frankie!