As World Cup kicks off in Brazil, many local fans are 'emotionally invested'

Soccer fandom has grown in the 20 years since the event was held in the United States

  • Lee Douthitt of Baltimore (center) and other soccer fans watch the U.S. men's national team's final tuneup before the World Cup from Slainte Irish Pub in Fells Point on Saturday.
Lee Douthitt of Baltimore (center) and other soccer fans watch… (Matt Bylis, Baltimore Sun )
June 11, 2014|By Don Markus | The Baltimore Sun

Derek Woodward can remember how local sports fans reacted to the 1994 World Cup, the first and only time the quadrennial soccer event was held in the United States.

Despite games being played as nearby as Washington's RFK Stadium, few casual fans knew what was going on.

But Woodward, a teacher and girls soccer coach at Kenwood High in Baltimore County, has seen local interest in the World Cup grow dramatically over the past 20 years. When Woodward organized a watch party at the Gunpowder Lodge in Perry Hall for the U.S. team's tournament opener in 2010, nearly 500 people showed up.

"Now you have people who are emotionally invested in the sport and they're telling me how [English star] Wayne Rooney has fallen off," said Woodward, whose late father Denny played professionally. "It's awesome."

This year's World Cup begins Thursday, with host nation Brazil facing Croatia. The U.S. plays its opening game Monday against Ghana, the opponent that eliminated them from the past two World Cups.

Those in the local soccer community say that, while it's not on the same level as the Super Bowl, the World Cup has become a major event for area sports fans, thanks to the growth of youth soccer and the proliferation of overseas soccer coverage on American television.

Homegrown passion

An increased interest in soccer hasn't transformed the U.S. into a world power — the men's national team is ranked 13th in the world by FIFA, international soccer's governing body. But the atmosphere will be charged at pubs and restaurants throughout the Baltimore area over the next month, particularly when the Stars and Stripes take to the pitch.

From Slainte in Fells Point "where soccer is religion," according to its marketers, to Little Havana in Federal Hill and Claddagh Pub in Canton, fans of the sport will get first crack at strategically placed tables and bar stools.

Four years ago, Baltimore tied for 10th among U.S. markets for World Cup viewership, according to ESPN. Baltimore had the third-highest U.S. viewership of English Premier League matches this year, according to NBCUniversal, which televises them.

Those are statistics that Josh Ganzermiller proudly touts.

"Just going off those numbers alone, interest is going to stay high for the whole [World Cup] tournament," said Ganzermiller, president of the Baltimore Brigade, the local chapter for the American Outlaws, the U.S. team's official fan club.

Ganzermiller attributes some of the rise in interest to the growth of youth soccer.

According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, youth soccer participation jumped from around 103,000 in 1974 to more than 2 million in 1994. After hitting the 3 million mark in 2000, it has remained around that level ever since.

Those who spent their weekend on soccer fields as kids now spend some of their down time watching it, and many still compete in adult leagues.

"They're in that 21 to 26 age range. They know the sport. They have a passion for it," said Ganzermiller, 28. "Now they have money to spend and they go out to do things, and when they go out to do the things, it involves soccer because that's what they're passionate about."

When it's not World Cup season, local fans still frequent bars to watch significant overseas competitions, such as the English Premier League and the Champions League, which features the best teams throughout Europe.

Opportunities to watch live soccer in Baltimore have been inconsistent. The Baltimore Blast indoor team is a mainstay, but the city has been without a professional outdoor team since Crystal Palace disbanded shortly after the last World Cup.

M&T Bank Stadium sold out when a Gold Cup match between the U.S. and El Salvador was held there last July.

A 2009 exhibition between English club Chelsea and AC Milan of Italy also sold out M&T Bank Stadium. Subsequent exhibitions there featuring international club teams drew announced crowds of 36,569 in 2010 and 42,763 in 2012.

'Group of Death'

Fans of the national team will remember how the United States rallied in the final minutes to win its group at the 2010 World Cup. (The competition is divided into eight groups, with two of the four teams from each group advancing to the single-elimination knockout stage.)

This year, the United States has been drawn into what most believe to be the toughest group, or the "Group of Death" in soccer parlance. After Monday's rematch with Ghana — which knocked out the United States in the Round of 16 four years ago — the U.S. will play world powers Portugal (on June 22) and Germany (on June 26).

From a fan's perspective, that could work in the United States' favor.

"I think people are aware that we're in a very tough bracket, and are concerned about that," said Kevin Healey, president and general manager of the Baltimore Blast. "As Americans, we don't always have that underdog role, and people are embracing that."

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