World Cup brings together Howard fans with patriotic passion

Tucked away in the far corner near the door of Looney's Pub in Maple Lawn is Laurel resident Ivan Alvarado. Because of the crowd early Monday evening, he's forced to eat his chicken tenders and a salad using a stool as a table while he stands. It saves space and time when he joins in the frequent chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

There is excitement in the room and anticipation as the U.S. team is about to take the pitch against Ghana in its opening game of the World Cup. It's the kind of atmosphere fans associate with a Ravens playoff game.

This is different, though. There is patriotism in the passion and hope that new U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann can inspire his star players to show their stripes on the world stage.

Alvarado, a track coach at Atholton High School, is wearing his blue United States Men's National Soccer Team T-shirt and a stars-and-stripes bandana. He is joining many Howard County residents in their local support of the red, white and blue in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

And, just like he did Monday, he plans to watch as many games as he can while in the company of fellow fans.

"It's gotta be (Clint) Dempsey," Alvarado said when asked which American player is likely to have an impact in the opening round of group play against Ghana — the team that bounced the U.S. from the last two tournaments.

And almost as if on cue, the talented forward snakes his way through the Ghanaian defense and scores in the first half minute of the game.

The bar erupts into cheers from fans — many of whom may not even know where Dempsey plays his club ball during the year outside of his national team duties.

Still, to most diehard soccer fans in the area, it's best not to get lost in the details.

"There are fans of the team, and then there are fans of America," said Keith Smith, a 26-year-old self-proclaimed "real fan" proudly sporting a DaMarcus Beasley jersey. "I'm realistic. I know a lot of these people don't watch the rest of the sport. ..."

Smith watches with his two friends, as the United States holds on to its 1-0 lead heading into the second half.

He and his pals take advantage of the specials Looney's is offering, as it tries to tailor its menu to the schedule for the day. There was a chili cheese queso hot dog during the American game, a bratwurst for Germany, steak tacos for Colombia and a dish featuring hummus for the Greek matchup.

Looney's seems to have found a niche crowd for the next few weeks, especially when the U.S. plays, which it will again on Sunday against Portugal, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo.

"Today is almost like the Super Bowl," said Aubrey Huggler, one of the managers on duty Monday night. "It feels like football season, because you have games going from noon until 9. We stay busy with a constant flow of people coming through the door."

Even on a night when the Orioles are taking on division-rival Tampa Bay, 10 of the 11 televisions on the restaurant's main wall are tuned to the U.S. game.

As one works through the crowd, even spotting a few Ghana supporters, it's easy to see the diversity that exists among soccer fans in Howard County.

On the surface, many fans look the part — dressed head-to-toe in the appropriate colors with scarves and headbands to complete the look.

Still, fans such as Clarksville natives Zak Stevens and Evan Kerschensteiner agree that it's not about how much you know about the team or the sport. In a county dominated by youth soccer, powerful high school programs and many adult leagues, the game has a strong place here. However, it's the unity that keeps people coming back.

"Everybody is rooting for the same team," said Stevens, still in his clothes from work because he wanted to catch the rest of the game.

Added Kerschensteiner: "Everyone wants to come together and watch. It's a better atmosphere."

Though Ghana scores the equalizer with eight minutes to go in regulation, John Brooks' header in the 86th minute seals the win for the Americans, touching off an even louder celebration.

Among the chants at Looney's after that is the familiar: "I believe that we will win."

It's a far cry in popularity from the average NFL Sunday in Howard County, but every four years, the World Cup unites fans.

Whether it's a show of national pride or even a reason to drink a discount Guinness on a Monday night, cheering for something together has fans off their couches and into their local pubs.

Where's Alvarado watching the next matchup against Portugal on Sunday?

"Maybe Union Jack's," he said.

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