Nielsen ratings lie.It was Saturday at 7:30 a.m. and there wasn't a seat in the house at ESPN Zone LA. A quick phone call to two other bars in the greater Los Angeles area revealed the seating situation was the same everywhere in Southern California. Four hours before kick-off between U.S.-England and bars across the Southland were already turning people away.
Was this really the United States? Supposedly, the land with a secretive subculture of soccer fans and a lack of appreciation for the world's game. Now, the world's game was on full display and every game had a tremendous viewing audience in the U.S.
But these aren't fans sitting at home and soaking up the first World Cup on African soil on their sofas, these are fans embracing the atmosphere at their local watering hole. Fans who want to celebrate their team's glories with fellow supporters.
The crazy face-painting, the festive outfits, and the singing of national songs are things you would see at a viewing party in a hosting country, not in a supposedly "non-footballing country" hours before kick off.
Luckily, I had snagged one of the final seats in the house at ESPN Zone in the newly renovated L.A. Live complex. I had no idea how long that four hours would be though; ESPN Zone had their liquor license suspended from serving alcohol prior to 10 a.m. due to an incident during the opening game the day before.
However, the four hour wait was met with playful banter between the two English speaking nations, pleas for an early beer, and anxious emotions over the most anticipated game in U.S. Soccer history.
My situation wasn't unique. From the viewing party at Jack Dempsey's bar in New York City (the one broadcast on ESPN and ABC) to the viewing party at AT&T Park in San Francisco, all across the country Americans (and a few lost English fans) were gathering to watch the greatest spectacle in sports.
The television ratings suggested a crowd of 13 million for the game Saturday on ABC. However, that number doesn’t take into account those bars, viewing parties, and stadiums showing the game. America was on notice that our boys were playing against the former motherland on the grandest stage.
When the game started, the nerves were palpable in the bar. The angst would only last a few minutes as Steven Gerrard burst through the U.S. defense and calmly slotted a ball past Tim Howard to give the Red Coats the early lead.
The English fans began to sing their songs, and praise the abilities of the Liverpool boy. (I assume that is what they were doing; after they drink a few Newcastles, their accent is impossible to understand.)
The American crowd was left fearing the worst after a horrid start. The only joy felt by American supporters in the first 20 minutes was booing David Beckham relentlessly whenever the cameras cut to the razor-inept playboy.
It took a few moments of hopeful anticipation (Altidore's header, Milner's yellow, Donovan's shot) before the crowd would fully erupt. Dempsey's harmless dribble 30+ yards from goal didn't seem to worry anyone, but when he hit that shot that skipped across the turf. . . everyone leaned forward. Green fibbed the catch. . . hands started to raise in excitement. Green dove for the ball as it trickled across the line. . . the bar exploded with noise. All of the U.S. fans jumping up and down, the English fans raising their hands in disgust. Yanks running around the bar waving the flag. And the chants broke out, "USA! USA! USA!"
A standing ovation from the American supporters as the half time whistle blew. A quick trip to the restroom revealed ESPN Zone puts TVs on top of each urinal (possibly in the discussion for most well-thought out bathroom design ever). But it also presented the awkward bathroom attendant dilemma, do you tip or not? I tipped on the second trip after the game, but my wallet was starting to feel the wraith of $8 beers.
Second half came, and 100s of coaches emerged from the crowd.
"Put in Buddle."
"No, go defensive."
"PARK THE BUS."
Everyone seemed to believe they were brilliant tacticians and had figured out the perfect strategy to escape our opening game with a point (or better).
Some nervous moments early in the second half from a Heskey breakaway to a long-range effort from Shrek, excuse me, Rooney. Both were met with hissing and a chant for Tim Howard.
It wasn't until the middle of the second half that the crowd would come alive again. Altidore skinned his mark and headed in one-on-one against the fumbling Green. Jozy decided to go near-post, but an incredible split-second reaction from the goat of the game was able to barely push the ball far enough so it careened off the post and left the score level.
A few final chances from the Red Coats didn’t scare the crowd, and the chants of "USA! USA! USA!" echoed into the plaza surrounding the Staples Center.
One of the workers compared the event to a game 7 of an NBA Finals involving the Lakers. For a basketball town like Los Angeles, those are pretty lofty comparisons. U.S. vs England was both a success for the fans and for the team. As a U.S. fan for many years, Saturday was an amazing day that showed the growth of the sport in this country both on and off the field.
Visit the U.S. national team page on Goal.com for more and join Goal.com USA's Facebook fan page!