COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The weather was cold, just as they hoped. The crowd was loudly partisan, just as they wanted.
And then things began going wrong for the United States -- until two youngsters stepped in Wednesday night to turn around the World Cup qualifying opener.
Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis, both substitutes, combined on the first goal in the United States' 2-0 CONCACAF qualifying game victory. Wolff then set up veteran Earnie Stewart for the clincher with three minutes remaining as the flag-waving, ''U-S-A'' chanting crowd of 24,624 in the 29-degree chill of Columbus went wild.
''It was a great atmosphere, everyone on the bench felt it, a real homefield advantage,'' defender Jeff Agoos said. ''I think this is a big step for (American) soccer in general.''
It was the Americans' third straight win over Mexico, a first in the rivalry, and the first time since 1980 the U.S. team beat Mexico in a qualifier.
It was achieved greatly because the United States exhibited rare depth. After losing forward Brian McBride and midfielder Claudio Reyna to injury in a mediocre first-half performance, the Americans were sparked by their replacements -- Wolff, who turned 24 on Sunday, and Mathis, also 24.
''We obviously faced a lot of adversity having to make a couple of changes,'' coach Bruce Arena said. ''I am real proud of the way our team pulled together at halftime and did the job in the second half to get the victory.''
Mexico played well for 45 minutes. But Mathis' long ball in the second minute of the second half was misplayed by the defense.
Wolff ran onto it before goalkeeper Jorge Campos could get to it, and he easily slipped around Campos to deposit the ball into an unguarded net.
''I wasn't sure if he was able to get to it, he might have hesitated a bit,'' Wolff said of Campos. ''I was able to touch the ball and scoot it past him.''
With the Mexicans, ranked 12th in the world to the Americans' 16th, pressing for the tie, goalie Brad Friedel made several superb saves. His best came when he dived to stop Francisco Palencia's bullet in the 69th minute.
As the Americans attempted to run down the clock in the dying minutes, Wolff, of the MLS Chicago Fire, dribbled toward the right corner. Then he turned quickly along the end line, beating the defense and Campos before placing a perfect pass on Stewart's foot for the second goal.
''Wolff was terrific,'' Arena said. ''He really pulled it off at the end of the game. It's not that we had to get him in the game, but we thought Josh's speed would be a factor and he was able to get behind the defense.''
A shoving match broke out in the U.S. end moments later, with even Campos coming all the way downfield to join the melee. But nothing developed from it, and Mexico went off meekly with its fifth loss in the last six internationals.
''Unfortunately, we didn't come away with the result we wanted, '' Mexico coach Enrique Meza said, ''but I know the players worked hard and they put in a tremendous effort.''
The Mexicans could protest all they wanted that the cold would not affect them, but they didn't bother to come out for pregame warmups. By the time the visitors took the field, the temperature was 29 degrees and one of their fans held up a sign saying: ''Next Time, Pick Alaska.''
Many of the shivering American fans were wrapped in U.S. flags. Others held up red, white and blue streamers that fluttered in the icy wind.
The first half was not kind to the Americans. They failed to get a shot on Campos and lost McBride and Reyna.
McBride, the United States' most dangerous forward, hurt his right eye in an early collision. He was replaced in the 15th minute by Wolff, who subsequently drew a yellow card.
Playmaker Reyna began limping in the 26th minute and was replaced by Clint Mathis in the 43rd. Reyna barely touched the ball while on the field and left with a groin injury.
Notes: In the other openers, Jamaica beat Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 and Costa Rica tied Honduras 2-2, leaving the United States in first place on goal difference. ... U.S. defender Tony Sanneh dislocated a bone in his left foot ... The last time the United States won a qualifier against Mexico was Nov. 23, 1980 ... The Americans had 20 fouls, including 13 in the first half ... Mexico's Rafael Marquez and German Villa also drew yellow cards ... The Americans play Brazil in an exhibition game Saturday in the Rose Bowl, and travel to Honduras on March 28 for their next qualifier ... Mexico's next qualifier is at home vs. Jamaica.
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