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November 27, 2014

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World Cup:

Las Vegas fans catch a scorching case of ‘socceritis’

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Sam Morris

Soccer fans watch TVs at Hofbrauhaus as the United States takes on Germany in their Group G game at the World Cup in Brazil Thursday, June 26, 2014.

World Cup Fans

Liberty Leavitt chews on beads while watching soccer at Shakespeare's Grille & Pub as the United States takes on Germany in their Group G game at the World Cup in Brazil Thursday, June 26, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Raymond Ugarte stood up from his seat at Shakespeare’s Grille and Pub in Henderson with 30 minutes left to go in the United States’ World Cup game against Germany, which would decide whether the Americans advanced to the next round of the tournament.

The lawyer from California’s Bay Area sighed, started to put on his tie, and nervously looked at his watch. He had flown into Las Vegas on Thursday morning for business, had the cab driver drop him off near his meeting and went into the closest bar he could find.

“I just knew I had to find some way to watch,” he said. “I can’t believe I’ll have to leave before the end.”

Ugarte put on his gray suit jacket and, before walking out into the 90-degree heat, wrapped a warm U.S.A. scarf around his neck.

“I’ve been a soccer fan all my life,” Ugarte, 33, said before taking off. “But it’s night and day in terms of support for the U.S. soccer team compared to when I was growing up. Now, all the games are on television, and you can watch European league games here. Before, people in the U.S. didn’t really pay attention.”

Shakespeare’s has been opening early for the World Cup games, and more than 100 people crammed into the bar by the 9 a.m. kickoff. Across the Las Vegas Valley, and the nation, U.S. fans have turned out like never before, packing bars at odd hours, and, in some cities, filling public parks to capacity with viewing parties.

The U.S. team’s tie versus Portugal on Sunday was the highest-rated soccer broadcast in the country’s history. The official television audience of 25 million surpassed ratings for both the 2014 NBA finals and the 2013 World Series. Including estimates of viewing parties at bars and public parks, the audience was likely close to 30 million.

Lynn Mellin was at Shakespeare’s sporting a U.S. soccer jersey and red, white and blue painted fingernails, stationed at a long table with two dozen family and friends. Mellin, a Las Vegas elementary school teacher, had just returned from seeing the U.S. team play in Brazil, where she and her husband, Scott, went for their honeymoon.

“The support for the U.S. team has been incredible this year,” Mellin said. “In Brazil, there were thousands of fans in the stadium for the first game against Ghana. There were pregame parties, and everyone was singing and chanting the whole time.”

Across Las Vegas at the Hofbrauhaus, an off-Strip bar and restaurant, German and U.S. fans sat side by side, filling the massive establishment to capacity, as waitresses zipped through the aisles, their hands full of beer steins.

When the World Cup draw was held in December, placing the U.S. in a group with Germany, Kansas City resident Jon Bogaard and his friends made plans to be in Las Vegas at Hofbrauhaus for the game.

“The support for soccer and the knowledge of the U.S. fans has grown tenfold,” Bogaard said, speaking over the loud buzz of the crowd. “Last World Cup, people would ask me why the clock counted up and not down.”

Hofbrauhaus has been in Vegas since 2004, and the establishment’s German-born president, Stefan Gastager, says the percentage of U.S. fans making up the crowd at the tavern is growing with each World Cup.

“This is the best World Cup I’ve ever seen in Las Vegas in terms of support and crowds showing up for the games,” Gastager said. “I think the sport is growing here for sure. The MLS (Major League Soccer) has helped. Every World Cup the U.S. team is a little stronger, and the fans are more and more passionate.”

Bogaard and his friends were in Chicago for the previous U.S. game but were turned away from the watch party at Grant Park, which was filled to capacity with more than 20,000 fans.

Although Las Vegas has not started showing the games on big screens at the Fremont Street Experience yet, the city has come out in support of the team.

“Las Vegas is getting there, and you have to consider that places like Chicago and Kansas City, where fans have packed public parks, have MLS teams that help sponsor the events,” said Phil Garcia, co-founder of the Las Vegas chapter of the American Outlaws, the U.S. National Soccer Team unofficial fan group.

This World Cup has been a “perfect storm” for building interest, Garcia said. The first U.S. game was against Ghana, which had eliminated the Yanks from the previous two World Cups. Next, the U.S. faced Portugal, which boasts the current world player of the year, Cristiano Ronaldo. Finally, the U.S. faced Germany, where current U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was a beloved striker who won a World Cup. To top it all off, the first three weeks of the tournament have been exhilarating, with several last-minute finishes and scoring up 40 percent from 2010.

“I know people who have come down with a case of ‘socceritis’ and have been calling in sick to work to come to the games,” said Garcia, who was planning on quitting his job at a bank for a while and decided that right before the cup started would be a great time to pull the trigger.

“There are Metro Police officers I know who put in for time off in January to make sure they’d be able to watch the U.S. play,” he said.

In 2010, Garcia went to see the United States play Mexico in Los Angeles for the Gold Cup.

“There were more people booing the national anthem than singing it, and I just said enough is enough. I came back to Vegas and founded the chapter of the Outlaws with Royce (Woodward),” he said.

At first, the Las Vegas chapter of the fan group was just a handful of guys, friends of Garcia’s and Woodward’s. Today, there are about 135 members of the local chapter, and hundreds of people have been coming to the group’s watch parties at McMullan’s Irish Pub. The American Outlaws has 125 chapters and 18,000 members.

“I think there were four of us at the first game that we watched at McMullan’s,” Garcia said. “Now the place is packed. There were 900 people who came for the Portugal game, and we had to turn people away. It’s built up in a real grass-roots, word-of-mouth way. Fans are chanting, singing and banging drums the whole time.”

Across the valley, there are also enclaves of support for other national teams, where fans of Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and other countries gather.

Carlos Buscaglia grew up in soccer-mad Argentina, playing the game and following legendary player Diego Maradona as he led the country to the 1986 World Cup title. When Buscaglia was 15, his parents moved to Las Vegas. He did not know English yet and within days of arriving had joined a soccer team, gravitating to something he knew and understood.

“In Argentina everybody plays soccer, and Maradona was like Jordan; everyone wanted to emulate him,” said Buscaglia, owner of Due Forni pizza and wine restaurant in the western valley.

Buscaglia has opened the restaurant early for World Cup games, and it was packed for Argentina’s first game of the tournament against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“As the U.S. fans get to see more and more of the best players, when they come to MLS or more European league games are shown on TV, soccer will keep growing and top athletes will play the sport,” he said. “It’s not like the passion you see in Argentina or other countries yet, but it’s getting there. I’ve been here 23 years now, and I’ve never seen it like this.”

Back at Shakespeare’s, the crowd cheered and chanted “U-S-A!” at the end of the 1-0 loss to Germany. The U.S. team had qualified for the next round despite the defeat, aided by the win and tie they tallied in the first two games. Lynn Mellin’s group wasted no time, immediately booking their preferred table at Shakespeare’s for the next game.

The U.S. is one of the final 16 teams in the World Cup and now enters the single-elimination phase of the tournament. The team plays Belgium at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

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