Fans turn out for first U.S. World Cup game

Some believe increased interest a sign of soccer’s growing popularity in county

CRYSTAL LAKE – It’s a bar sprayed with international flavor, punctuated by the flags pinned flat to its ceilings and accented by its English owner. But Monday, The Cottage was all U.S. of A.

The more dedicated among them dressed in American jerseys and scarves. Others made their allegiances known early, not through their attire but their conduct. A Clint Dempsey goal just 29 seconds into the first U.S. game of the 2014 World Cup – a game they would ultimately win, 2-1, defeating Ghana – brought many of those who weren’t already standing in the crowded Crystal Lake bar to their feet.

A half hour later, shortly after a key first-half save by goalkeeper Tim Howard, a young man turned toward his semicircle of friends, clapped three thunderous claps and bellowed, “USA, BABY!”

It could be viewed as a simple display of American pride. But, as the bar’s owner and others believe, Monday’s showing flashed a sign of soccer’s growing following in McHenry County, a hint that the world’s favorite sport is breaking into mainstream American culture and becoming a spectator sport to be reckoned with – economically and otherwise.

Ask Kristian Rockall – who coaches the club soccer team the Crystal Lake Force and formerly coached varsity soccer at Marian Central Catholic High School – and the sport’s presence in McHenry County has grown significantly even since the last World Cup in 2010.

“A huge amount,” said Rockall, a McHenry resident who watched the game with friends at The Cottage Monday. “[You see it in] the amount of people playing the sport, the amount of people coming out to watch the games.”

Growing interest comes from several factors, Rockall said.

Major network television deals to bring European League soccer to the U.S. has fueled interest from viewers, he said.

And the level of competition is rising in Major League Soccer, the American soccer league once thought of as talent deficient. Dempsey shocked fans last summer when he signed a deal that brought him back to the U.S. with Seattle Sounders FC, of MLS.

Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were looking forward to the World Cup.

The prospect of soccer finding mainstream culture in the U.S. excites Rockall, who is originally from London, England.

“It’s good the game is growing, for sure,” he said.

Paul Leech, who owns The Cottage, stops short of saying that any widespread soccer craze has hit the county. But his sports bar has become home to what he calls a “core of soccer fanatics.” He’s attracted fans from all kinds of backgrounds.

As The Cottage did in 2010, its changing food and drink specials by day to match the countries playing. Monday, shrimp and Miller Lite were among the American-inspired specials. Germany’s game earlier in the day brought a brat feature to the table. On days that Mexico plays, it’s Modelo. And the list goes on.

Asked if soccer has ultimately effected the bottom line – if the specials are working – Leech smiles and lets the crowd answer for him, motioning with his eyes toward the room.

“This is Monday night,” he said.

It’s tough to tell whether the added business is a product of growing interest in the sport or of simple convenience. Four years ago, the time difference in South Africa challenged American fans. A game that started at noon meant a 5 a.m. wake-up call.

“We were surprised how many people came four years ago for the morning games,” Leech said. “But it’s definitely up because it’s a more reasonable time.”

U.S. fans packed into Buffalo Wild Wings in Crystal Lake, too, on Monday.

Assistant general manager Scott Lerette said the turnout wouldn’t rival your average Bears game, but it filled most high-tops in the restaurant’s bar area.

“For a Monday at 5, this is pretty good,” Lerette said.

Forrest Beck, of Woodstock, said he thinks it’s a symptom of rising interest. Beck sat at a table with four others. He and his friend, Scott Subak of Crystal Lake, wore American jerseys.

“The interest is there,” he said. “You see more people in jerseys, at the games.”

He looks around.

“I feel like you wouldn’t have seen this many people at Buffalo Wild Wings four years ago.”

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