Troy R. Wells’ fingers tensed around the U.S. national soccer team scarf draped over his shoulders.
He focused on the large projector screen at the back of the Monarch’s wall, over the heads of dozens of Wichita soccer experts and newcomers, watching the “beautiful game” Tuesday where the American flag was being carried onto a soccer field in Brazil thousands of miles away.
Soccer fans packed the Delano district bar, spilling onto the patio and leaving hardly a seat empty, hardly a moment of silence not punctured by raucous applause as they watched the U.S. team play the Belgian Red Devils in the knockout round of the World Cup.
Wells, a member of the soccer-diehard American Outlaws, led the cheers right up until the 111th minute of the game, when the U.S. lost 2-1 in extra time after a tense, scoreless 90 minutes, dashing any hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002.
“I believe!” he yelled at the start of the game in a voice hoarse from weeks of cheering, lunging forward with his fist to his chest.
The crowd, wearing T-shirts, jerseys, scarves, hats, headbands and bandanas in a multitude of American flag designs, echoed Wells, adding a word each time until they screamed repeatedly in unison: “I believe that we will win!”
That sentence was heard across the U.S. for the national team’s fourth match in Brazil, growing louder each game as crowds swelled and soccer shot up in popularity. The United States’ previous game, when it lost 1-0 against Germany but qualified for the second round, averaged 10.7 million viewers for ESPN, making it the third-most-watched World Cup game ever on the network.
The chant was heard in Washington, where misting stations stretched along an entire block at Freedom Plaza to cool fans in the summer heat, according to the Associated Press. The chant was heard in Chicago, home of the U.S. soccer federation, where officials moved the game-watching event from a public park to Soldier Field to accommodate an expected crowd of more than 20,000 people. The AP reported that President Obama chanted the same words as he left the Oval Office and joined about 200 staff members in an Executive Office Building auditorium to watch the second half of the game.
At the Monarch, Karl Miller stood out among the crowd – literally. He rose from his seat for the U.S. national anthem, singing loudly.
“I’m hyperpatriotic,” Miller said. “I just think you gotta stand up, especially when it’s so cool to hear our anthem on the world stage.”
Miller said he’s been working at being a soccer fan since the sport has risen in popularity in the U.S. in the past 15 years.
“I still don’t know the rules,” he said. “If we lose, I probably won’t watch any more games except the final. But the atmosphere here is incredible. My wife and I are ‘east siders,’ but we’ve been coming here because it’s a good, rowdy crowd.”
The crowd – Belgian beers in hand – stayed rowdy all through the game, often throwing their hands together with lightning speed for thunderous applause. Some stood with their eyes glued to the projector screen or one of four televisions hung up on the walls. In the corner hung a banner reading “United We Stand.” U.S. goalie Tim Howard was a hero for the crowd, stopping 16 Belgian attempts to set a record for the most saves in a World Cup match.
Fans shifted to the edges of their seats every time a U.S. player advanced across the midfield toward the Belgian goal. Their voices rose and fell with the ball at each corner kick or header. Every pause in the game, whether for a penalty or the halftime and extra time breaks, was immediately filled with chants of “USA!”
The bar was full of some of Wichita’s most experienced soccer players, such as Sky Youngblood, a former midfielder for Hutchinson High School and Butler Community College, who critiqued the team’s tactics and plays.
“This is a very disciplined team,” she said. “They’re showing how soccer has progressed in the U.S. You wouldn’t see this kind of crowd 10 years ago. We even have players from Sporting KC on the national team. It shows that players coming from Kansas can make it in the big leagues.”
Jason Fritts, a former goalkeeper for Wichita State University, said the size of the crowd at the Monarch was nowhere to be seen during the 2010 World Cup play.
“This is head and shoulders above the last World Cup,” said Fritts, who took a day off from work to watch the game. “The U.S. has taken a step forward in soccer. There is a lot of pride. All the soccer players in this town are smiling.
“We really want the beautiful game to be in Wichita, the way it should be.”
Jarret Green, whose brother Daniel leads the Outlaws, has been a soccer fan for more than eight years. He said the crowd is the most he’s seen people come out for a soccer game in the U.S.
“I’m proud of the team, even though the loss is tough to take,” said Green, who designed the Outlaws’ scarves. “Soccer fans are very good at looking where we’ve been and seeing where we are now. We’ve showed that we’re a serious team, and we’re serious fans.
“Am I depressed about the loss? No. Am I extremely impressed with our team? Absolutely.”
Green also took a day off from work for the match, bringing along his company’s newest employee, Seth Etter, for his first day on the job.
“I wish we would’ve won,” Etter said. “But you can now count me a soccer fan.”
Chris Krueger traveled around the country to all but one of the U.S. World Cup qualifying games, even making it into the national headquarters in Chicago for the Gold Cup Finals. Krueger moved to Wichita exactly one year ago to begin graduate studies in creative writing at Wichita State. At the time, the Outlaws weren’t yet an official chapter with the national organization. Now the Monarch and the Fox and Hound compete to be the best soccer bar, he said.
“It’s a great sign that two places in a city of this size are doing this,” said Krueger, who wore a scarf from the U.S. versus Mexico match to represent U.S. soccer’s “next phase.” That game saw the U.S. officially qualify for the world tournament.
“Kansas has always had a longstanding soccer tradition. I’m hopeful this is a turning point. There’s energy behind the team; support is growing. The big factor is whether or not people watch the MLS.”
Few sets of eyes weren’t glued to the screen after Belgium took a 2-point lead, but when Julian Green powered a goal through for the U.S., everyone jumped to their feet.
“I believe,” they shouted.
In the end, the game ended as it began – with chants. “Thank you, Monarch!”
On the patio, members of the Outlaws started a game of “pool soccer.” Johnny Ferreira reminded them that he predicted the U.S. team would make it past the first round.
“It’s simple,” he said. “If you love America, you support the U.S. team.”
Contributing: Associated Press