The first of the fans to come to Pine enjoy front row seating before the masses come. Photo by Jason Ruiz. All other photos by Brian Addison.
It started slowly, but the fans trickled in one by one. Donning American flag capes, face paint and removable patriotic tattoos, they sat and waited as the crowd swelled with the rest of their soccer-fanatic brethren. By kickoff time for the United State’s match against Belgium it became very clear: Pine Avenue was World Cup central in Long Beach.
They came from near and far to be part of the viewing party thrown by the Downtown Long Beach Associates, which estimated that was some 2,000 to 3,000 attendees.
Samantha Dickens of Glendale had just returned from Brazil where she saw the U.S. take down Ghana in the group stage. But the lifetime soccer fan couldn’t resist the opportunity to have the electric feeling of being in a sea of U.S. supporters pulse through her body.
“I get goosebumps every time watching those YouTube videos,” Dickens said of the live feed videos of other watch parties across the country. “You hear people cheering, 'I believe that we will win,’ and you get a whole bunch of fans together. All these strangers become best friends within five seconds because they’re cheering for the same team—which so happens to be their country, which is even better."
The viewing party attendance mirrored the arc of support that the U.S. Men’s National Team has enjoyed throughout the World Cup's duration. The long-time fans filled into Pine Avenue just before 9AM, sitting on curbs with blankets while sipping coffee and waiting for the Argentina vs. Switzerland match. With only four days between the announcement of plans to shutdown the block between Broadway and 3rd for the viewing party, it was uncertain how far word had spread that Long Beach was the place to be.
“It was a quick turn around putting this event together,” said DLBA communications manager Julie Kroinke as the event was beginning to roll out. “When the U.S. progressed out of their group on Thursday, we decided to throw a big party. And here we are today. Pulled it together in a few days but I think it’s going to be a fun event for everyone and we have a lot of excited fans here to see the USA game at one o’clock.”
By noon, it was evident that the word had indeed spread. The smattering of fans had grown into a sea thick enough that it was uncertain whether a vuvuzela or stage diving was more appropriate. Then the chanting began as the clock inched closer to 1PM.
“USA! USA! USA!”
“We believe that we can win! We believe that we can win!”
“This is a great environment,” said Aman Chowdhry, who made the one and a half hour trek to Long Beach from Riverside. “The only thing you could match this with is going to Brazil, being in the stadium.”
After a rousing sing-a-long of the National Anthem, fans sat through a tense first half where time after time Belgium had great looks at the net but U.S. goalkeeper TIm Howard turned them away. The score was knotted at zero, or nil if you please, when the game broke for halftime and the fans watching on the giant LED screen at the intersection of 3rd and Pine broke for local businesses.
Guacho Grill, the Argentinian restaurant on Pine had been busy all morning. People clad in Lionel Messi number 10 Jerseys packed the place to cheer on the Albicelestes (sky blue and whites). Manager Gaston Miorin, sporting his own jersey, couldn’t imagine how crazy Pine would be if the U.S. advanced to take on Argentina Saturday morning. Especially with the DLBA promising to throw another World Cup party if they took down Belgium.
“We weren’t really sure what to expect,” Miorin said of the packed house at Gaucho. “It was a nice surprise to have all these people today. We’re pretty happy with the result.”
The economic impact was part of the intended result of the DLBA decision to bring World Cup fever to the streets of Downtown. If businesses weren’t at capacity, they had lines of fans decked out in red-white-and-blue waiting to get in. Kroinke said the discussion with the area businesses asking them to open early for the festivities was a short one.
“The reason we do events like this is to be an economic driver for the community,” Kroinke said. “That’s why all the DLBA events move around the Downtown area. We expect the fans that come out today to come out and go to one of the restaurants, maybe grab a beer and enjoy one of the drink specials and enjoy downtown.”
Inside Shannon’s on Pine, the headquarters for the American Outlaws soccer fan club, the excitement and tension were as palpable as the sound waves coming from the Bud Light beer cups for sale at the bar, which doubled as vuvuzelas when the beer was gone. Varouj Shekerdemian, operations manager for Shannon’s on Pine and lifelong soccer fan, climbed atop a chair [pictured left] and gave an emotional speech thanking everyone for making this World Cup so memorable.
The song singing inside the bar was only broken by the gut-wrenching barrage of shots on goal that the U.S. keeper turned away in an almost robotic fashion. As the game went to extra time, the bar erupted into chanting again.
“Tim-my How-ard! Tim-my How-ard!”
“Tim Howard is the best goalie in the world,” said Outlaw member Matt Bragman. “People would die to have him on their teams and we’re proud to have him on ours.”
Howard faced 27 shots on goal while the Americans were only able to muster nine against the Belgium keeper. His 16 saves set a World Cup record, the most since 1966 when records keeping at the tournament started. The epic performance by Howard even prompted someone to insert Howard as the Wikipedia entry for Secretary of Defense, circa July 1 2014.
However, it was the goals in extra time, first at three minutes in and then again in the 105th minute that simultaneously let the air out of the bar and U.S. World Cup run. The faces of the Outlaws inside Shannon’s, hidden in their U.S. scarves, staring blankly at the flat screens, resembled the defeated Howard laying on the pitch, arms outstretched and staring up in defeat.
“Every four years I have to watch us lose to a bunch of people that make waffles,” Bragman said. “It’s sad.”
But in true American-spirit, neither the fans or the national team gave up. The bar exploded into celebration when the Americans finally got on the board with Julian Green’s goal in the 107th minute of extra time, re-infusing fans with the hope that had been permeating through the street all day. The desperation on Bragman’s face matched the frantic play of the team on the field, time was running out on a magical run that had seen soccer become an event in the U.S. like few had seen before.
As the final seconds ticked down and defeat was certain for the U.S. there was a brief moment of silence where the crowded bar took in the realization that it would be another four years before they could cheer on their country in the World Cup.
And then, with the taste of defeat still fresh in their mouths, the bar broke into song again.
Every where we go. Every where we go.
People want to know. People want to know.
Who we are. Who we are.
So we tell them. So we tell them
We are the U.S.! We are the U.S.!
The mighty, mighty U.S.! The mighty, mighty U.S!
The defeat may have sent the U.S. packing but the swarm of people getting behind the national team during this year's cup has raised the prospects of more and more peolple packing bars, restaurants and stadiums as soccer fandom continues to grow in the country.
“I live in downtown Long Beach so it’s so fun having a place downtown where I can watch soccer, cheer for my home country, my team,” Bragman said. “It’s great to have people to come out in support of our nation. It’s wonderful.”