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Sports Soccer

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

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."

Said Ganzermiller: "I think it's an American thing that people get drawn in when it's America against the world, like in the Olympics or the World Cup."

It also doesn't hurt that there are Maryland ties to the U.S. team, with veteran midfielder Kyle Beckerman, of Crofton, making his World Cup debut at the advanced age of 32. Two former University of Maryland stars, defender Omar Gonzalez and midfielder Graham Zusi, are also expected to play important roles.

"They've all got great stories, and there's a very strong connection to this area," said longtime Terps coach Sasho Cirovski. "Everyone is excited to cheer on the U.S. with national pride, and with the Maryland connection, there's sort of a heightened pride."

Jacori Hayes — who came out of the same Bowie-based Freestate Soccer Alliance travel program as Beckerman and is now in the under-20 pool of U.S. national team players — said he senses local fans are approaching this year's World Cup with a sense of excitement and trepidation.

"With us being in the 'Group of Death,' it's pretty challenging, since we've struggled with Ghana in the past and we all know how good Germany and Portugal are," said Hayes, who recently finished his freshman year at Wake Forest and is spending his summer on the under-23 team of Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers.

"There's a little bit of nervousness there about how we can pull out good results. I think we can with this team. It's going to take a lot of work, but I think everyone is excited for the World Cup."

A different home team

Hayes, a former captain of the Baltimore Bays club team, looks at this year's World Cup as both a fan and a player "who hopefully can get to that point in my career."

But, like many, he is admittedly conflicted by the makeup of this year's national team.

Veterans such as Landon Donovan, the all-time leading U.S. goal scorer, and former Maryland star Maurice Edu have been left off the roster by German-born coach Jurgen Klinsmann. They've been replaced by younger players, many of whom grew up in Europe — specifically five who are from Germany.

To be eligible to compete for a nation, players must only have been a resident of that country for five years or have either a parent or grandparent live there. It leads to some players going out for spots on the team without having as strong a connection to the country as others.

"As a player, it's definitely challenging, because you're not only competing against the players you know and played against in the development academies, but there are a lot of kids out in Europe or in South America that you haven't heard of and they're over there for a reason — they're good players," said Hayes, who is from Bowie. "As a player, it's competitive to make the team anyway but it's even harder now."

The upside is that adding that talent to the national program can help the United States compete with countries that have a richer history in the sport.

"I think it's a positive. It just makes us more competitive as a nation," Hayes said. "Other countries do the same thing, they look for the best players [eligible]. It just creates a more competitive environment to produce the best players. I guess there's two sides to it. Some question whether the foreign-born players really identify themselves with the nation and play for the crest on the front, but as we get the best talent, it will do well for us and it will help grow soccer in the U.S."

Healey agrees.

"On the surface you might wonder why he [Klinsmann] is doing that," he said. But "this is what countries do all over the world. Even Spain, Brazil and other countries do the same thing when there's a dual citizenship. ... [Klinsmann's] goal was to get the best team possible to represent our country. If we are successful, the soccer community will be awakened to the possibility of what we can do with soccer."

While Cirovski certainly had a vested interest in players such as Edu and Clarence Goodson — another former Terp who didn't make the final 23-man roster — he will be watching along with the other local and national fans to see how the U.S. team fares.

"They're all going to put on their red, white and blue," Cirovski said. "When it comes to the World Cup, we're all Americans. It's like a political race. You might not have voted for the president, but he's still your president."

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56


World Cup 2014

When: Thursday through July 13

Where: 12 venues in Brazil

TV: All matches will be broadcasted by ABC, ESPN or ESPN2

Format: 32 teams are separated into 8 groups. The four teams from each group play each other once. The top two teams from each group emerge for the 16-team, single-elimination knockout rounds. The July 13 final is in Rio de Janeiro.

United States' Group G schedule: Monday vs. Ghana (6 p.m., ESPN); June 22 vs. Portugal (6 p.m., ESPN); June 26 vs. Germany (noon, ESPN).

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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