Crew SC teammates Ethan Finlay and Rodrigo Saravia have a unique opportunity this Tuesday. As the U.S. and Guatemalan Men’s National Teams are preparing for their second meeting in the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the two Columbus midfielders are feeling right at home. Tuesday’s match is being held at their place, MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
It’s a great honor for a player to represent his country, but to play in front of his home crowd on a national level is a rare occasion. In his fifth season with Crew SC, Finlay has the chance to hear his home fans cheer for him while wearing the Red, White and Blue. Finlay didn't feature in Friday’s contest in Guatemala City, the hometown of his teammate, Saravia, who played the full 90 minutes and helped Los Chapines to a 2-0 win over the Stars and Stripes. Recently drafted by the Black & Gold, Saravia now has the opportunity to play for his country at his new home in Columbus.
It's a rare opportunity for both Finlay and Saravia. They could become just the fourth and fifth players to make a senior international appearance at MAPFRE Stadium while being on Crew SC's roster. In fact, Saravia could become the first international member of Crew SC to play in a senior international match at MAPFRE Stadium.
The first Crew SC three players to represent the USMNT at MAPFRE Stadium were Brian McBride (2001, 2003), Frankie Hejduk (2003, 2005, 2009) and Tony Sanneh (2004). McBride started for the Stars and Stripes in the original Dos a Cero win over Mexico on February 28, 2001 as well as a 2-0 friendly win over Paraguay on July 6, 2003.
“It’s a time where you have the best scenario to represent your country,” McBride says. “You get to represent your country, knowing you have your family watching you, in a comfortable and familiar setting, while also knowing you have a great set of fans to cheer on not only you, but the whole team.”
His meeting with Mexico was cut short after a collision in the 15th minute forced him to leave the field with an injury above his eye. Nonetheless, the experience was one to remember.
"The city embraced the chance to show it could be a pro USA crowd, something we hadn’t had against Mexico. That made for a special experience for us," McBride remembers. "Usually from the time we walked out to warm up when playing Mexico, till the time the game ended, the crowd would be sarcastically whistling at us and cheering for Mexico. We knew from the second we walked out for warmups that it would be different. Now that's something special."
That win over Mexico was the first of four consecutive 2-0 victories in Columbus.
“I think the stadium history builds itself, with the U.S., especially with Mexico and all the Dos a Ceros, and being undefeated there,” Hejduk says. “Over the years, it has grown as more of a home field for the players, because when you go to a place and you know it's going to be 95 percent your crowd behind you and you haven’t lost there before, there’s another recipe for success.”
In 10 matches in the first soccer specific stadium in the U.S., the Red, White and Blue have gone undefeated (7-0-3), with a 6-0-2 record in World Cup qualifying. Hejduk was a part of two of those fourth round qualification matches in 2005 and 2009, both resulting in 2-0 wins over Mexico.
“For whatever reason, Columbus seems to be the place where our true fans come out,” he says. “I think MAPRFE Stadium gets as close to 100 percent U.S. fans as any stadium could get in the U.S., and that’s a special thing.”
Imagine how that feels as a member of Crew SC. For these guys, it’s the epitome of representing their club and country, in their city.
“It helps you realize what and who you are really playing for,” Sanneh says. “You play and are supported by the city on a daily basis, and to be able to play for them on a global stage is special. For them to be able to be included in international games is special.”
Sanneh contributed to a 3-0 win over Grenada on June 13, 2004 for the largest margin of victory for the U.S. in any match at MAPFRE Stadium.
“I think it is special because the spirit of the Crew rubs off on you,” he says. “When you play there, you feel like you are representing the country but also regular people. You quickly change your mindset and have a workman-like attitude. Just being in the city, where it is located and the people give you a community feel, which translate into unselfish play on the field.”
Finlay and Saravia display that attitude as much as Hejduk did in his playing days. Looking back at his successful career, the club legend and current Crew SC Brand Ambassador says the three U.S. matches he played at MAPFRE Stadium were a dream come true.
“Whenever you get to play anywhere for your country, it’s a big deal and a huge honor,” Hejduk says. “Tons of emotions go into it. But when you get to play in front of your home fans, they are even that much more behind you […] Any time you get play in your home stadium in front of your fans is a dream come true for a player. You wanna show your fans what you can do and represent your club well, and at the same time, your country as well.”