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Sports Soccer

Baltimore soccer fans show spirit, if not knowledge

They came to Power Plant Live! with American flags slung like capes around their necks, red-white-and-blue suspenders holding up their shorts and giant top hats festooned with enormous glittering stars that would make Uncle Sam blush.

Fifteen minutes before the United States' World Cup match against Portugal, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." filled the downtown air. Ten minutes till the start, and the U.S. soccer chant, "I believe that we will win," reached a roar. A DJ whipped the crowd into bellowing "USA" with a few anxious minutes remaining. Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." blared.

"We're here to support America, and that's all that matters," said Ayelet Dresin, a 21-year-old Baltimore resident who wore a red-white-and blue silver-studded sleeveless T-shirt and did not bother trying to hide her lack of soccer expertise.

"It's depressing," she said. "But it's America, and I know they won the last game and if they win this, it's a good thing."

What many in the crowd lacked in knowledge of the international game which continues to make slow but steady inroads into American hearts, they made up for on Sunday in patriotism, cheering warmly for their home country, even as Team USA produced a lukewarm result: a 2-2 tie. Fans will have to wait until Thursday, when the U.S. plays group-favorite Germany, to find out whehter the Americans will advance to the next round.

"I was born here, so I got to represent," said Leslie Escobar, 26, wearing an American flag bandanna and cut-off white shorts, red shoes and a wandering gaze.

"I'm paying attention," she said. "Somewhat."

Aaron Schwartz, 24, also didn't hide the fact that he wasn't a devoted World Cup fan. "But I'm patriotic enough to follow," he said. He was also patriotic enough to wear a matching flag-themed hat and bow tie that his mother had found at a discount retail store.

"$2 goes a long way for your country," he said.

But not everyone was at the party because they felt it was their patriotic duty. In the crowd, there were a few true scholars of the game — lifelong fans like Zafar Khudayberdiev, 33, of Glen Burnie, who follows the Italian football club Juventus, and said he sees the Baltimore area growing more and more comfortable with the sport.

"Columbia, D.C., Baltimore, you have a lot of options to watch soccer," he said. "Ten years ago, it was different."

John Podles, 26, said he believes the World Cup will draw more American viewers than ever because Americans love watching sports on TV and, this year, they won't be annoyed by the incessant buzzing that plagued the games in 2010. That buzzing was created by thousands of fans at games blowing plastic horns known as vuvuzelas. This year, the World Cup has banned the instruments.

"Now you can watch it," said Podles, who often goes to Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant in Fells Point to watch soccer matches.

Awual Aziz, 38, who lives in Washington and is originally from Ghana, said he also believes that interest in the World Cup in America will be greater than ever, thanks to two things: social media and women attracted to shorts-wearing, fit, international male athletes.

"Social media is playing a role promoting soccer in the U.S.," he said. "Women are watching more soccer because they're seeing cool-looking men."

But Baltimore, a city rabid about baseball and football, still has a long way to go to embrace soccer, said Adam Carrier, 28, of Hagerstown, who said he has played the game most of his life.

"I would say you have a lot of catching up to do with D.C.," he said. "That's because D.C.'s just more of an international city."

Smoke hovered over the crowd from hot dogs and hamburgers cooking on a giant grill, and a woman in a short red tank top and bright blue shorts poured Miller Lites from a beer stand tap. The scene resembled an Oriole Park at Camden Yards concourse or a parking lot before a Ravens game at M&T Bank Stadium. That was no surprise to Spy Soy, 34, who said that's what the area is used to: "Right now it's football and baseball."

But, he said, Team USA continues to build its fan base. "It's a gradual thing," he said.

One thing, he said, could bring a landslide of attention.

"If America wins this game …," Soy said.

That will have to wait until Thursday.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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