With soccer 'clearly on the rise,' U.S. fans unite for Gold Cup in Baltimore

American flag shirt, shorts and bandanas replaced the typical purple Joe Flacco and orange Adam Jones jerseys on the streets surrounding M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards on Saturday.

The vendors with Orioles apparel had a special section filled with United States shirts. American flags were sold on street corners. And soccer balls replaced footballs at the tailgates.


Baltimore evolved into a soccer haven — at least for the day — with the first two games of the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals in town. Fans packed into M&T Bank Stadium to watch the doubleheader, first the United States men's national team against Cuba and then Haiti against Jamaica.

"Any time you get U.S. soccer together, it's going to be a good time," said Ryan Ellis, a resident from Philadelphia who had friends from Texas, California and Colorado with him. "It's always a party. People from all over the country come."


When Baltimore hosted the 2013 quarterfinal between the U.S. and El Salvador, U.S. fans were heavily outnumbered in the crowd of more than 70,000. But with three Caribbean teams joining the U.S. in the quarterfinals in Baltimore, American fans dominated the crowd and the surrounding tailgates.

It has been a growing trend in recent years as soccer gathers steam in the United States. Fans pointed to the 2014 men's World Cup and the women's World Cup victory earlier this month as reasons.

"Soccer is clearly on the rise in this country," Ellis said. "It's fun to be a part of."

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was happy with Baltimore and the turnout, too.

"It's an absolute gorgeous city," Klinsmann said. "The venue is great. I mean having tonight more than 40,000 people against Cuba is outstanding. It's a growing soccer city. … We'd love to come back."

Saturday was another step in the direction of filling stands with a majority of U.S. fans. In the past, the U.S.'s home-field advantage has been essentially nonexistent with other countries' fans filling the stadium.

That wasn't the case Saturday, and Phil Esposito, who drove about four hours from his home in Brockway, Penn., wants that to continue against more traditional soccer powerhouses.

"I'm hoping to see more pro-American crowds when we play the bigger teams at home like Brazil, even Mexico," Esposito said.

The parking lots between M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards were jam-packed hours before the 5 p.m. kickoff. The beating sun and humidity wasn't enough to deter fans from making a day out of the event.

With American flags swaying in the parking lots, fans decked out in red, white and blue guzzled beer and played cornhole. The major difference from football Sundays was that soccer-juggling circles replaced friends tossing around a football.

But Chris Palermo-Re, who drove up for the game from Northern Virginia, said the fact that there is tailgating at all is an important distinction from soccer games in other parts of the world.

"There is a lot of stuff where I think soccer in America has tried to copy from South America, from Europe and stuff like that. But I think one thing that is good about it is we have kept tailgating," Palermo-Re said. "They don't do that in England and Paris, I have friends from there who say they just go to the game. It's kind of cool that it is still around."


The atmosphere itself was different from what you might see before a Ravens game, too.

"There is a lot more camaraderie at the tailgate," said Cameron Martino of Baltimore. "At the NFL tailgate, everyone wants to punch each other in the face."

Martino's friend, Steve Malm, who attends both Orioles and Ravens games, compared it to a Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game, saying you wouldn't exchange words with a Steelers fan cooking out a car over. Malm said "it is a lot friendlier."

There were other activities in the parking lots for fans, too. Sprint had a stand with guys performing tricks with soccer balls and getting fans to participate in games like trying to head the ball back and forth down a line.

"This atmosphere, it is different than every other sport out there," said Sean Gannon, a Frederick resident. "This sport here is more than just a city or a region. It's the whole nation. It's like the last thing in America of the American pride."

Once fans left their grills and beers and headed into the stadium, the fervor only grew. The American Outlaws, a dedicated section of U.S. supporters seen at every game, stood for the action behind one of the goals. They sung every word of the national anthem, only overshadowed by the "O."

Before the U.S. team took the field, "U-S-A" chants filled the stadium, just as they had hours earlier when fans poured into the parking lots.

"That whole idea of one nation, one team, that's really building up the whole soccer program," Gannon said. "There is diversity, but we are all unified as being Americans."

Like many in attendance, Gannon's top passion is soccer. His father got him interested in the sport when he was 14 years old.

Gannon's father owned the "World Cup Express" bus, which was a seatless school bus he painted red, white and blue. He would drive it around to all the soccer games, but Sean said it has since broken down and his father has stopped being as involved as he got older.

But those summers driving around instilled a love for watching soccer. He came to Baltimore for the Gold Cup quarterfinals in 2013, and he came with a group of fans again Saturday. He hopes to build on what his father created years ago when soccer was still young in the United States.

"Our goal is eventually to relive that 'World Cup Express,'" Gannon said. "It's kind of broken down now, but we want to fix it up now that we are of working age."

It is the start of a new generation that considers soccer its favorite sport. Gannon isn't alone. Baltimore was filled with those fans Saturday, all donning their country's colors.


Recommended on Baltimore Sun