By Jim Vertuno, AP Sports Writer—
They turned out by the tens of thousands, some painted in red, white and blue, waving flags and chanting “I Believe!” in city parks, stadiums and sports bars from coast to coast on Tuesday to watch the U.S. national soccer team play Belgium in the knockout round of the World Cup.
Some were die-hard soccer fans. Others were newcomers, spurred on by the rising tide of support for the national team in the world’s biggest tournament.
They left without what they wanted: a win.
From Texas to Chicago to California, fans watched nervously as the U.S. and Belgium played 90 scoreless minutes before Belgium scored twice in extra time.
The U.S. responded with a goal but couldn’t tie the match to send it to penalty kicks. After 120 minutes of soccer, the Americans’ World Cup was over. America, in the middle of its World Cup frenzy, got a reminder that soccer can be a cruel, cruel sport.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Adam Graves, a 39-year-old special needs teacher who stood among about 2,000 fans sweating in the 95-degree heat in Austin, Texas, at a city watch party at a park near downtown.
“What a roller coaster. Just when you thought we were out of it, we were back in it. That’s what I love about soccer,” Graves said.
Others were more distraught.
“I thought we were gonna blow through this. I mean, I knew Belgium was good, but I didn’t think we were gonna go out like that,” said Sierra Kaufman, 19, of Redondo Beach, California, who had red, white and blue painted on her face.
“Half of these people came here just to dress up in USA stuff but I really wanted them to win,” she said.
Tuesday’s game was the fourth for the U.S. in Brazil as it tried to move deeper into the tournament. With every game, the crowds swelled as die-hard soccer fans joined the newcomers. Suddenly, America looked like a soccer-crazed country, as people skipped work and gathered in big crowds and watched the game play out on giant screens.
“They’re short people at work and they tried to call me in to work but I told them no way. I’ll let you know on Thursday if they’re mad,” said 25-year-old Alex Sanders, who chose watching the game on a Jumbotron at Redondo Beach in Los Angeles over his extra shift at Sports Authority.
Each game pulled in more fans: The U.S.-Portugal game drew 24.7 million television viewers overall, and the 18.22 million who watched on ESPN were the most the network has ever attracted for an event not involving American football. The Germany game averaged 10.7 million viewers, making it the third-most watched World Cup game ever on the network.
The swelling enthusiasm forced cities to make changes to accommodate crowds. In Chicago, home of the U.S. Soccer federation, officials moved a game watch event from a public park to Soldier Field to accommodate an expected crowd of 20,000 or more.
Even in 90-degree temperatures, fans still flocked to watch the big game. In Washington, there were misting stations at the block-long Freedom Plaza to keep fans cool. That wasn’t a problem at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where thousands watched the match in the air-conditioned home of the Dallas Cowboys.
Crowds sang the national anthem together and it was hard to find a seat at game time at Freedom Plaza. Marie Davenport, 76, set up a folding chair outside of the main crowd but with a good view of the big screen.
“I think that after this World Cup Americans are sold on soccer,” said Davenport, who thought the scene and crowd’s enthusiasm made it a better choice than her living room.
President Barack Obama left the confines of the White House Oval office and joined about 200 staffers in an Executive Office Building auditorium to watch the second half of the game.
“I believe!” he exclaimed as he walked in at the front of the hall. “I believe!” He was quickly joined by a chorus of “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”
As he took a seat in the auditorium’s front row, he said sheepishly, “I was worried that if I walked in and Belgium scored, I’d get in trouble.”
The loss ended the party for the U.S. fans but not before some agonizing moments as the Americans fought back from two goals down early in extra time.
In Austin, every save by U.S. goal keeper Tim Howard drew a rousing cheer. When Belgium finally scored, a small group of Belgium fans chanted and cheered as hundreds of U.S. fans started leaving, only to come racing back when Julian Green’s goal pulled the U.S. within 2-1.
When the final whistle blew, Graves, the school teacher wearing a U.S. soccer jersey, shrugged his shoulders and sighed. He marveled at the turnout of fans in Austin and elsewhere around the country.
“I remember watching games in 1998 at home. There was no point going to a bar because they wouldn’t have the game on,” Graves said.
Caitlyn Baldasaro, a 21-year-old college student in Austin, said she’d seen video images of giant World Cup watch parties in places like Paris, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro.
Baldasaro predicted they will only get bigger in the U.S. — if the Americans can eventually find a way to get deeper in the tournament. The U.S. hasn’t advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals since 2002, but she predicted the Americans will win it in the next 20 years.
“We’re very serious about sports in this country,” Baldasaro said. “It will happen someday.”
Today’s AP pull story was chosen by Carol-Lynn Shelby