Josh Wolff turned into an unexpected hero for the USA in its 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Mexico in 2001. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

Twenty years ago today on Feb. 28, 2001, the U.S. recorded a 2-0 win over Mexico, the first of four consecutive dos a cero results in Columbus.

By Michael Lewis

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A half hour into the match with Mexico, the United States was living its worst World Cup qualifying nightmare. The Americans already had lost their most dangerous scoring threat, Brian McBride, to a swollen eye, and their playmaker, Claudio Reyna, was hobbling around with a strained groin muscle.

In McBride’s place came an energetic and swift, 24-year-old forward who had all of four international games under his belt. Josh Wolff wound up as the unlikely hero in a dream performance in a stunning 2-0 triumph over Mexico on Feb. 28, 2001. Wolff scored the first goal and set up the second in a game that definitely put Mexican coach Enrique Meza on the hot seat on a cold night as Mexico’s winless streak hit six games (0-5-1).

The win, only the third time the U.S. had beaten the Mexicans in World Cup qualifying, gave the hosts three points and a share of the lead in the final-round Concacaf group along with Jamaica (1-0), which defeated Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0. The last time the U.S. had downed Mexico in qualifying was a 2-1 victory in Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 23, 1980, and that was after the Americans were eliminated from contention.

“It was a great win for the U.S. team,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “We obviously faced a lot of adversity. I am really pleased the team pull together in the second half.”

Asked if he could put the result into historic perspective, Arena replied, “Not really. It’s a long haul. You can’t make more out of today than it really is . . . We’re very happy to protect our home turf.”

The U.S. specifically picked Columbus as its venue, playing during mid-winter and 29 degrees in a gamesmanship effort to knock the Mexicans off their game.

It certainly didn’t hurt.

Wolff replaced McBride, the U.S.’s most dangerous scoring threat in the 15th minute. McBride had suffered a swollen right eye after he was elbowed in the face. The U.S. also lost Reyna to a moderate left groin strain in the 43rd minute and was replaced by Clint Mathis.

Wolff took centerstage in the second half.

With the final half barely a minute old, defender Jeff Agoos cleared a Mexican shot out of the penalty area to Joe-Max Moore, who knocked the ball to Mathis. Mathis launched a 30-yard pass to the streaking Wolff, who beat wandering goalkeeper Jorge Campos outside of the penalty area. The ball bounded off Campos’s knee and Wolff twirled around and found himself with an empty goal to shot at from 16 yards for his second international goal and a precious 1-0 lead.

“It’s a tough spot for a goalkeeper,” Wolff said. “I used my speed a little bit and got there first.”

Added Meza, “The goal was accidental.”

Wolff turned playmaker in the 88th minute. He beat defenders Claudio Suarez and Alberto Macias on the right side of the box and found midfielder Earnie Stewart, who slotted it home from 12 yards.

The U.S. also played well defensively as goalkeeper Brad Friedel made four saves, including denying Francisco Palencia from 10 yards in the 69th minute.

Agoos and his teammates took turns covering the always dangerous Luis Hernandez.

“We knew if they got a goal early it would have been an uphill struggle,” he said. “I think we could have played a little better. Any time we can get a win with the atmosphere here, it was a great feeling.”