COLUMBUS — The chant started from somewhere on the rickety bleachers that held the American Outlaws, U.S. soccer's most ardent supporters. It grew, slowly at first, and then fiercely, until every nook and cranny of Crew Stadium reverberated from the noise.
"This is our house," yelled the crowd of 24,584.
And it was. Tuesday night belonged to the U.S. men's national team, which used a pair of second-half goals to topple Mexico and qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The night also belonged to the fans, who stood from start to finish and stayed late to ensure that the Americans had indeed qualified.
But most of all, the night belonged to goalkeeper Tim Howard, who rebounded from a poor showing Friday in a loss at Costa Rica to keep El Tri off the scoreboard.
"It's expected of us (to make the World Cup), but it's never a guarantee," Howard said. "World Cup qualifying is tense. It's always so tight. … You can never really breathe a sigh of relief, but tonight we can."
The U.S. players had to wait until the Honduras-Panama match ended to punch their ticket to Brazil. Honduras tied Panama, 2-2, solidifying the Americans' seventh straight trip to the World Cup. The U.S. players celebrated on the field, spraying champagne and cheering with the hundreds of fans who stayed for the party.
"We had confidence that (Honduras) would do it," Howard said. "Once they rolled the champagne in, it got even better."
With two qualifying matches left, the Americans moved into first place of their six-team qualifying group with 16 points, surpassing Costa Rica (15 points). Costa Rica tied Jamaica 1-1 on Tuesday. The top three teams in the group qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth-place team will play New Zealand in a playoff.
Things got even worse for Mexico, which fired coach Jose Manuel De la Torre on Saturday after a disappointing loss at home to Honduras. Mexico dropped to fifth in the group behind Panama based on goal differential.
The U.S. dominated the second half. Eddie Johnson punched in a header in the 49th minute, and Landon Donovan poked in a cross half an hour later. Clint Dempsey nearly made it 3-0, missing a penalty kick in stoppage time when the game was already decided. None of it would have happened without Howard.
Mexico earned a pair of corners in the first five minutes and could have scored in the 10th had Howard not reacted quickly to defender DaMarcus Beasley's awkward clearance that sliced backwards. The veteran came up big again moments later, diving right to punch away a curling shot that looked destined for the back of the net. And on the final play before halftime, Howard deflected a header to keep Mexico off the scoreboard.
"You could see the psychological load in (Mexico's) minds that they started to doubt themselves," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
The Americans played without Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, two of their best players, and they were also missing Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron due to suspension. The absences proved especially detrimental in the opening minutes as the U.S. struggled to complete simple passes. When the Americans looked the most vulnerable, Howard proved to be the stone wall they needed, and he was seldom called upon in the second half as his team took to the offensive.
"I think we've answered the bell a bunch of times," Howard said. "I think it's part of this group's resiliency. It's good to see."