Jeff Jacobs: U.S. Soccer Fans Have Fun Time, Despite Loss

HARTFORD — It started in the 106th minute early Tuesday evening, only a few stifled groans after Romelu Lukaku had given Belgium a two-goal World Cup lead. A little tinny at first, a few voices scattered among the 300 or so American Outlaws fans that had jammed one side of Damon's Tavern on Prospect Avenue.

And then it gained steam, more steam and soon it became a full-throated, "From the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam …" Where there had been for a moment library quiet, the walls again began to shake with "God Bless America." It was fairly amazing.

Within seconds, sure enough, it happened. As if by sheer force of will, the energy, the passion, transported 4,360 miles from Hartford to Salvador, Brazil.

Julian Green, the Americans' youngest player at age 19, stuck out his right leg to volley in a pass from Michael Bradley. Suddenly, it was 2-1. This World Cup Round of 16 match was not over.

"That's the American will, right there," said Ryan Ulbrich of Wallingford, his eyes ringed red after the 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium ended the magic for a growing legion of American soccer fans. "We don't back down. People tell us you can't do this, you can't do that. We don't listen. We kept going. We kept persisting."

Oh, there had been a glorious chance for the Americans to win in the third minute of stoppage time. Jermaine Jones' header found Chris Wondolowski alone in front of the Belgian goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois. Wondolowski shot it wide, wide and awful.

There was an equally glorious chance to tie in the 114th minute when a clever free quick play set Clint Dempsey in on Courtois. The Belgian made a huge stop.

The Americans persisted. So did the Hartford chapter of the American Outlaws, who got out more than 1,000 fans Tuesday spread over Damon's, Sliders Grill & Bar in West Hartford and City Steam Brewery downtown.

It just wasn't quite enough.

"I'm just disappointed there will be more World Cup after this and the U.S. won't be part of it," America Outlaws chapter President Mike Lawlor said. "On Saturday [for a quarterfinal match against Argentina], we were going to rent out Spotlight Theatre. We just put it all out for the U.S. We give them our voice. We give them everything we have."

The 300 fans on one side of Damon's was only one half of the story. On the other side, there's another bar, with Outlaws and others, and a restaurant portion where Gov. Dannel P. Malloy watched the game.

"A great game," Malloy said at halftime. "But I think the [high humidity] may be getting to them all."

The heat and humidity in Salvador had nothing on the Outlaws' side of Damon's. Standing shoulder to shoulder in front of six big-screen televisions, it was sweat city for the guys and perspiration city for the women.

The Outlaws started in 2007 in Lincoln, Neb. The mission was to develop more serious and consistent fan support for the U.S. national team. There are about 150 chapters. The Hartford chapter started a year before the 2010 World Cup. A friend who had started the Boston chapter got Lawlor interested. They started from nothing. With Twitter still in its infancy, the first few made contact through Internet forums. They started as eight guys begging for a corner spot at Vaughan's Public House on Pratt Street.

"It took us months to get 25 members and we've got over 300 members," said Tom Lovkay, the chapter's vice president. "Now we want to get crowds like this for matches beyond the World Cup."

On this day, the Outlaws attracted so many more to join them. They showed to be primarily a Twentysomething and Young Thirtysomething crowd. It is no exaggeration at all to call them a show in themselves.

From bandannas to halter tops to bathrobes, they are dressed in all forms of the American flag. And they are loud. No, that's wrong. They are LOUD! They bang pots and pans. They bang drums. There were five large American flags unfurled.

A guy with a bullhorn led the proceedings. Yes, they are ribald. After all, this is an adult crew, but say this about the Outlaws. They have devised more creative uses of the f-bomb than any organization in the Western Hemisphere. It is part of their charm.

They have chants and songs — their lyrics set to familiar tunes — that break out spontaneously and continually. They even devised a special one for Belgium on this day.

It was a countdown song, set to "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain." It started, "There were five Belgian waffles on the plate" and it ended with "Clint Flippin' Dempsey wolfed them down." Until there no waffles left. We have used the word flippin' to protect the innocent.

There is one, set to "I Will Follow Him" from 1963 by Little Peggy March, that pledges their undying allegiance to U.S. soccer. There are all sorts of U-S-A! chants. The Outlaws almost all drank American beer, Budweiser, Miller, with only a few Corona mixed in.

They started in the hour before the game and they were wired. Once, twice, 50 times, they chanted "I Believe. I Believe That. I Believe That We. I Believe That We Will Win." It set off a floor-rattling and table-banging chant. One of their favorites, set to "Yankee Doodle," went: "Come on U.S. Score a goal. It's really flippin' simple. Put the ball into the net and we'll go flippin' mental." They sang it over and over again. They could not go mental until Green in the 107th minute.

There's another one that goes, "Tim Timeree. Tim Timeree. Tim, Tim, Teroo. We have Tim Howard. And he says flip you." It comes complete with a gesture toward the television. The Outlaws wore out that song Tuesday. For Howard made a World Cup record 16 saves and was unbeatable until Prince Harry's doppelganger scored in the third minute of extra time.

"Tim Howard played an amazing game," Ulbrich said. "Amazing."

I looked over at a guy dressed in an American flag at one point after a Howard save, after he had sung the Tim Howard song. There were tears coming down the side of his face. These people love American soccer. Most of them played as youngsters. They know the game. They drank and there were no fights. Said Lawlor, "We take the game seriously, but love to have fun." In another time and place, it would have been a pack of Italian fans on Franklin Avenue or Brazilian fans on Park Street. The coolest part of this wasn't that they were Americans or soccer fans. It was that they were American soccer fans, without either the bumptious cowboy antics or, conversely, the affected international elitism.

So there was Greg Whalen of Newtown in the stifling, packed bar, wearing a Kevlar helmet and standard-issue flak jacket. It had to be incredibly hot for him.

"Not as hot as it was in Iraq," Whalen answered.

A goalie in Missouri when he was young, Whalen was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. And now he stood there waving a giant American flag among the ribald songs.

"[The f-bomb] is the most versatile word in the English language," Whalen said with a smile. "We don't mean it in a bad way, but it's a way to get everybody in the sprit of competition pumped up.

"Ten years ago, there wasn't much support for U.S. soccer, but it' growing. Those seeds with kids playing were planted many years ago and you're seeing some rabid fans now."

Those rabid fans were quieted, stunned for a few moments, when the Americans fell behind by two. But they rebounded, persisted and sang their hearts out. Even with defeat marked by the final whistle they sang the song about how they will follow American soccer anywhere. We have a hunch they will.

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