Even before taking field, US soccer team scores one goal: making mainstream America care

By Chris Jenkins, AP
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Soccer Saturday? Fans rally to support US team

It won’t be much consolation after a stomach-churning loss that knocked the United States out of the World Cup, but the U.S. team accomplished something remarkable Saturday: It got a big slice of Americans back home to plan the day around watching soccer.

The United States might not be known as a hotbed for the “other” football. At least for one afternoon, that changed.

Fans — hard-core supporters and the casual and curious — gathered in bars, restaurants and living rooms from coast to coast, cheering on the U.S. team. They left disappointed, some shedding tears, after U.S. lost to 2-1 Ghana in extra time.

“I’m proud of our team,” said Marquette student Chris Engel, 21, who watched the game at the Highbury Pub in Milwaukee. “I’m proud of the support we had here. We fought ’til the end.”

Engel — who recently helped start a Milwaukee chapter of the American Outlaws, a supporters’ club for U.S. soccer — then added with a sigh, “four more years.”

The scene was repeated all across the country and overseas — even in Paris, where American flag-toting fans attended a public watch party near the Eiffel Tower.

There was another public watch party in Kansas City, where fans massed to watch the match at the Power and Light District. Some attending the Cardinals-Royals game weren’t paying much attention to baseball.

“We’ve been talking three days whether we’d come to the Royals-Cardinals game, a huge rivalry, the hottest ticket in town,” said fan Brian Budzinski of Kansas City, Mo. “If the Royals had not been showing this (on TVs around the stadium), we would not be here.”

At the Small Bar in Chicago, hundreds of fans showed up for the match dressed up in U.S. jerseys and wearing American flags draped around their shoulders. Some patrons lined up as early as 6 a.m. for a good seat.

Alex Boesel, 28, of Chicago, said he used to watch previous World Cups at home because he didn’t think other people cared so much about soccer. But he felt like something changed this year.

“People are more aware that other people care about soccer,” said Boesel, a computer programmer.

At the nearby Globe Pub in Chicago, fans booed several times at the Ghana players when they went down with injuries in extra time. After the U.S. lost, the bar got very silent before the crowd started clapping to salute the team.

Nikki VanKoevering, 28, of Chicago, said this is the first World Cup that she has really gotten into.

“I feel like soccer in America has the possibility to become more popular — and I think it has,” said VanKoevering, who played soccer growing up and now says she will root for Argentina. “But if we had gone further in the World Cup, the popularity would have been amazing.”

The Flying Saucer in Cordova, Tenn., had a celebrity guest for the match: Laura Howard, wife of U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who watched the game there with other members of the Howard family.

“I’m disappointed,” she said afterward. “I just know Tim didn’t want it to end up this way. But I do know two little children that will be very excited to see him. He will be back Monday.”

She videotaped scenes from the bar so her husband could see it when he gets back.

“He’d be blown away to know that this was the type of reception they got,” she said.

Saturday’s game was thrilling for some Americans — those with ties to Ghana.

At the South Florida home of Kingsley Antwi, about a dozen Ghanaians and their children watched intently from a sofa and plastic chairs.

“It’s my home and my kids are all American,” said Elesi Quay, 49, a microbiologist. “I’d die for the U.S., but when it comes to soccer, Ghana. Go Ghana!”

Fans of the U.S. team were outnumbered at the Ghana Cafe in Washington, D.C.

Ghana Cafe owner Tony Opare, said an uptick in interest in the World Cup is a healthy thing for Americans as a whole.

“I think it’s good for the foreign policy, it’s good for Americans relating to other people, their culture,” he said. “I think it’s a gateway to Americans trying to understand other people’s culture.”

Ato Wright, 31, who grew up in Accra until the age of 13, walked out of the Fado Irish Pub in Philadelphia whooping exultantly with his Ghanaian flag wraped around his head. For Wright, a doctor who moved to Philadelphia a week ago to start residency at a local hospital, the victory was the ideal housewarming present.

“My first week here, Ghana wins,” he said as he accepted high-fives from many U.S. fans leaving the bar.

For the U.S. team and its fans, Saturday’s game was a rough end to a wild week.

Landon Donovan’s dramatic injury-time goal to beat Algeria was huge from a soccer perspective, saving the U.S. from elimination. But in the age of social media, it turned out to be a community-building event of epic proportions.

For a new generation of soccer fans, ESPN announcer Ian Darke’s majestic call of Donovan’s decisive goal against Algeria —”AND DONOVAN HAS SCORED! OOOOH, DO YOU BELIEVE THIS? GO! GO! USA!” — has the potential to become their answer to “Do you believe in miracles?”

Hipster rockers Weezer penned an unofficial song for the team, “Represent”; lead singer Rivers Cuomo is a huge fan of the team. President Clinton stopped by the U.S. locker room after Wednesday’s game — then he stayed to have a beer, and then he rearranged his schedule so he could be at Saturday’s game.

Fans in bars across the country posted video of their reactions to Donovan’s goal on YouTube, leading Purdue University senior Robby Donoho to put together a video montage, complete with background music, that was passed around the world — including by several U.S. players who posted it on their Twitter accounts.

“To see that Landon and Herculez (Gomez) posted my video on their Twitter and Facebook accounts was truly jaw-dropping,” Donoho said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “I could not begin to express the feelings I had (when) I saw and heard about it. I was putting this video together to try and make a tribute to those guys over in South Africa and rally the USA around the soccer team and this World Cup, and it seems to have worked!”

But there wouldn’t be a second round of celebratory viral videos Saturday.

As he shook hands with fellow disappointed U.S. fans leaving Milwaukee’s Highbury Pub at the end of the match, Engel hoped the country’s newfound passion for its national soccer team would continue.

“If you stop supporting your country just because you lose, this doesn’t mean anything,” Engel said.

AP Sports Writers Doug Tucker, Zina Kumok and Dave Skretta, Associated Press Writers Anna Johnson, Ron Todt, Nafeesa Syeed and Christine Armario, and freelance writer Paul Whitehead contributed to this story.

will not be displayed