A man dressed like Uncle Sam is walking past with a stuffed-toy bald eagle perched on his upraised forearm. Well, he is inching past more than walking because the crowd at Mickey Byrne’s Irish Pub & Restaurant is so wall-to-wall dense that if it started raining in the place, no drop would ever reach the floor. Waitresses carrying pints of beer lift their trays Statue-of-Liberty-style and try to squeeze through the shifting throng as another chant blooms with merry spontaneity.
Then somebody screams, “I believe!” And the place hushes, because all know what’s coming, and within moments, hundreds of soccer fans awash in red, white and blue are pogoing up and down and thunder-chanting, “I believe that we will win!”
This was hours before the United States-Portugal World Cup game even began.
The pub in downtown Hollywood is the official headquarters for a local chapter of a U.S. soccer fan network called American Outlaws, and if you ever wondered how passionate Americans can be for what some used to call a “foreign” sport, drop by Mickey Byrne’s on Tuesday when Team USA plays Belgium in the Round of 16, the knockout round, and be enlightened. Just get there early. Very.
“It’s an amazing atmosphere because everyone’s shouting for the same team, completely different than most USA sports,” one of the bar’s owners, Mark Rowe, said in a soft, Irish brogue. “People are living and dying by every touch. It’s like a mad frat party gone wild.”
Something is happening here, not just in a single bar along Hollywood Boulevard just past the railroad tracks, but all over America.
Soccer isn’t arriving.
It has arrived.
This World Cup, ongoing in Brazil, seems to have signaled a change in both U.S. soccer and the nation’s response to it.
The national team and the sport’s fans are fully grown now in the last, biggest country on Earth to fully embrace the world’s game.
The American national team is no longer the lowly underdog hopelessly behind the inscrutable skills of the giants of Europe and South America. And likewise, American soccer fans are no longer a cult or a niche or anything else that implies the interest is not sea to shining sea.
This marks the first time the U.S. men have advanced to the Round of 16 in consecutive World Cups, making that a new litmus test for what’s minimally expected, and accepted. Only once in modern history, in the current 32-team format, have the Americans won a game in the knockout stage. That was in 2002. It didn’t even happen when the United States was host to the globe’s biggest sporting event in 1994. But that feat could be equaled Tuesday against Belgium.
The United States entered this World Cup ranked 13th by FIFA among 209 nations. The team, now coached by German legend Jurgen Klinsmann, is stocked with players who have been soccer-immersed and expertly trained all their lives, and who compete in top leagues around the world. The playing field is leveling.
U.S. soccer has yet to develop a goal scorer of breathtaking artistry such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, just as America lacks the pedigree of the likes of Brazil and Germany.
The disparity narrows though, as the United States declares that the “world’s sport” is now America’s, too.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
In step with the team’s advances, the notion of a giant emerging, fans are responding. It is quantifiable, and at times stunningly so.
The American TV audience for that U.S.-Portugal match was estimated at 25.2 million on ESPN and Univision combined, making it the most-watched soccer game ever in this country. Ratings for both networks have leaped 50 percent over what they were for the 2010 World Cup.
ESPN senior vice president of programming Scott Guglielmino used to get asked a lot when soccer would “arrive” in this country. Not so much anymore. Spanish-language Univision’s increased numbers also owe partly to the U.S. team, as Univision Sports president Juan Carlos Ramirez notes the United States tends to be the second-favorite team of many of its viewers.
Of course, Americans’ love of patriotism and the lure of an event, a spectacle, drive those ratings probably more than interest in soccer itself. Nevertheless, viewers are viewers. Interest is interest. The NFL playoffs and of course the Super Bowl well exceed that 25.2 million figure, but not much else in sports does. The most recent college football BCS National Championship Game drew a comparable 25.7 million.
Here’s perspective that might surprise you:
The recent Heat-Spurs NBA Finals averaged 15.5 million TV viewers per game.
The 2013 World Series averaged 14.9 million.
Hockey’s Stanley Cup Finals averaged only 5 million.
U.S.-Portugal walloped those numbers. As big as LeBron James is nationally, interest in U.S. World Cup soccer was bigger by a lot.
And here is something else to consider: Soccer, far more than other sports, lends itself to communal viewing. All across the country — whether it’s thousands of flag-waving fans jammed into Chicago’s massive Grant Park or those maniacal hundreds shoehorned into Mickey Byrne’s — there are huge, organized watch parties going on that are not counted in the TV ratings that generate viewership estimates.
Not only World Cup-driven interest but the increasing success of Major League Soccer (which would include Miami if David Beckham and local government can agree on a stadium site) suggest a sport fast leaving the fringe and entering the American mainstream. Facebook reported World Cup-related interactions the first week alone surpassed those generated by the most recent Super Bowl, Winter Olympics and Academy Awards combined. Search #WorldCup on Twitter to see more of the breadth of impact.
Comic actor Will Ferrell addressed hundreds of U.S. fans in Brazil this week just before the game against Germany and alluded to the suspension of Uruguayan star Luis Suarez for a biting incident. Ferrell pretended he would be suited up for the game.
“I will bite every German player if I have to!” he told the cheering, celebrating crowd.
FABRIC OF AMERICA
U.S. World Cup games are filling bars, movie theaters and public parks with jammed watch parties in cities large and small.
“We get to the team hotel and we hear about Grant Park in Chicago having 10,000 fans to watch our games,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “Friends and family are sending pictures and videos of what’s going on. It can’t help but push you.”
FIFA reported more than 200,000 World Cup tickets were sold in the United States, second only to host Brazil.
“The narrative that is constant and consistent is that the sport is in a different place now in America,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati told Brazilian reporters last week.
The evidence of that will be nationwide when the United States next plays Tuesday, but not wrapped in more passion and merry bedlam anywhere than at Mickey Byrne’s in Hollywood.
Get there hours early. Stand on a bench seat to be above the madding crowd. Pet that stuffed-toy bald eagle for luck. Prepare for a shower of beer spray in the delirium of an American goal.
Oh, and bring your full voice and prepare to leave hoarse.
Whether you are cheering for a team or a sport or a country or all of those — it’s all the same right now. It’s all one voice, a national chorus.
“I believe that we will win!”