Scenes From A Women’s World Cup Viewing Party

The chants beckon. They resonate throughout the wooden structure of the bar. There’s a crowd, but there are also some empty seats here and there; the feeling more half full than half empty only due to the intoxicating camaraderie that permeates the room.

A blue, dimly lit pop-a-shot machine sits snuggly in a dark corner, completely ignored and unused. There’s no time for basketball right now.

An oddly placed TV is the lone screen showing a baseball game between the Cubs and the Mets, but no one is watching it. There’s another type of American pastime going on right now and it’s got the eyes of everyone in attendance fixated on the many other screens showing the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team battle Germany in the World Cup semifinal.

This pastime has more present pertinence than past history, but it’s one that’s had people wearing red, white and blue scarves in June and July. One that’s had middle-aged men rushing into the bar in their business attire, quickly putting on their red t-shirt and gluing their eyes to the screen for the next 90 minutes. It’s one that’s had California surf dudes barging in — late, of course — to yelp “USA!”, ditching the tank tops and opting for the Waldo-style jerseys. It’s had workers bypassing going straight home from a long day of work, choosing instead to stay nearby, grab a drink and make sure that they don’t miss the game.

“I just got done with work,” said John Cooper, a maintenance worker who works in the same building of the bar. “But if I head home right now, I’ll miss the game because of traffic, so I might as well stay and watch with all these fun people. It’s better this way.”

This isn’t new. Large viewing parties have been around since 2002, and thanks to the ‘Goal Heard Around the World’ in the 2010 World Cup, these gatherings have received plenty of fanfare and exposure. But this summer, it’s been different. This summer, as the viewership across the country has broken records, the turnout at restaurants and bars has been much like that of the men’s games. This summer, the games have had people chanting “Leroux, Leroux, Leroux, Leroux, Leroux’s on fire!”. This summer, the games have had male fans that usually don Clint Dempsey or Michael Bradley jerseys proudly displaying their Ali Krieger kit and cheering with the same unabashed patriotism for a Carli Lloyd goal as they do for a Jozy Altidore finish. This summer, people profusely debated the status of Abby Wambach as a starter while screaming in anger every time an opposing player so much as touched Megan Rapinoe.

This summer, it’s not only been about hopeful success as it usually is with the men’s team; it’s been about lofty expectations.

“At least it’s a fun and good team to root for,” Cooper pointed out. “And it’s even cooler that it’s the women’s team that’s really good. I didn’t think this place would be like this for one of their games.”

Like the squeezed out orange wedge sitting on the bottom of an empty beer mug, so sat the patient cheers in the anxious throats of the members of the Los Angeles American Outlaws; a nationwide US Soccer fan group that prides themselves on the their loyalty to the teams whether at home or away at international games.

The members of the Los Angeles chapter had come to the ironically named Man Cave Bar in search of a reason to shriek “Goal!” with glee. Moreover, they come in search of a communal experience where cursing and loud chanting was appreciated, if not welcome.

During this semifinal, however, the chanting during the match was more subdued. For the first time, in a long time, the victory was not so naturally expected. In short, Germany was good; and the United States had not yet shown a style of play believed to be able to contend.

Megan Rapinoe was playing more defensive-minded than usual, but her level of play suffered none. Others like midfielder Morgan Brian and Tobin Heath showcased their best performance of the tournament thus far, threading perfect passes into lone forward Alex Morgan, while stalwarts like Ali Krieger and the wonderful Carli Lloyd made the turf-clad pitch their dominion. Even young stud Julie Johnston made runs from the back to wreak havoc inside the 18-yard-box.

But the lack of finishing, whether marginal or not, began to amount into doubt and fear that the Germans could counter with a run of their own. The counter-attack was looming. The chants had all but vanished. Replacing it were the chewing of the fingernails, the nervous pacing around the tables, the hurried chewing of food and the maddening grunts and pulling of the hair every time a close chance went uncapitalized.

A middle-aged man slapped the floor after a miss: “C’mon, finish that!” A younger one hit the table with frustration after a near-goal: “We have to score,” he pleaded.

You could feel the emotional investment in the room. And thanks to a pair of goals, it eventually paid off in post-game joy.

A missed German penalty kick, a made American penalty kick and a second goal later, the ticket to the final was punched, and the collective sigh spelled out relief among the many fans who stayed by afterward. The USWNT were heading to the World Cup final after having beaten the best team in the world with their best game of the tournament.

Fast forward to championship Sunday and the emotions were never subdued; they did not need to be, nor were they ever able to be suppressed. This time, the bar was packed, once again clad in red white and blue, and both team and fans were feeling as confident as ever headed into a rematch against defending champions Japan. The tragic ending of 2011 was either forgotten by most, or not even remembered by the new influx of supporters this go-around has made. If there were doubts, however, that the team would fall prey to Japan’s tactical skills, they were squashed in swift fashion.

Goal after goal — two from Carli Lloyd and one from Lauren Holiday — the faces of the fans in attendance fluctuated from shock, to excitement, to joy. They couldn’t believe this was happening; three goals in 16 minutes — “When do you ever see THAT?!”

History was being transfused with joy and sprinkled on top by the overwhelming reality that a loss now seemed nearly impossible. Lloyd would, of course, cement that feeling further by adding on a fourth — giving her a hat trick and giving the USWNT the luxury to now sit back and defend their place at the podium.

When Japan scored one in the first half and another in the second, there was a sense of disappointment among the crowd, not as to prepare for the dangerous comeback, but rather as to be bothered by the fact that this would not be a shutout. After all, the defense and Hope Solo had given fans 540 minutes of goalless perfection in the back.

But in the end, it would matter none. A Tobin Heath strike made it not one, not two, not three, not four but five; the unnecessary clincher to top off a marvelous championship performance.

In the midst of the frenzied celebration, one of the many American flags posted fell down from its place. Two men rushed quickly and re-taped it onto the wall. A woman wearing flag-tinted sunglasses proudly extended the flag in her hand, while a small kid wore an American flag tank top. So many flags, so many fans, so many different types of people united under one realm.

The Olympics seldom elicit viewing parties where the red, white and blue congregate as one. And rarely can Americans put aside their geographical fandoms, their appreciative obsession with the constant debate of the NFL and the NBA, or their heated arguments over baseball history.

Only when the soccer ball on the pitch rolls, and we all turn our gaze in cohesive support for these teams, can the fissures that typically divide our loyalties be blurred out for the good of all.

American soccer has embraced that status of exception. It has become that encompassing physical community that brings us out to bars, viewing parties and get-togethers in search of a patriotic belonging, however real or not it may be. It has become that unifying social construct that allows to feel a part of something collectively bigger.

More importantly, the sport has not only unified in numbers, but this summer it’s also unified us in the name of gender. Though there was no real grass, no equal pay, disputing coverage and as always, senseless comments and tweets, there was also overwhelming love and appreciation for not just the American team, but for players like Lady Andrade, Louisa Necib and even Laura Bassett; for teams like the intrepid Nigeria, the talented France and the endearing Canada. For one month, the focus was where it should have been and will hopefully continue to be.

On the day of the semifinal victory against Germany, when asked if the Outlaws would hold a viewing party for the U.S. Men’s upcoming friendly against Guatemala, a spokesperson for the group coolly replied:

“I don’t think so,” he said. “We’re focused on the Women’s World Cup right now, it’s more important anyways.”

It turns out it was.

This is the USWNT’s first World Cup victory since 1999, when that famous group of 99'ers hoisted the trophy on home soil. The frenzy surrounding that team was large, indeed, but the coverage was not nearly as whole or fair as it is today. Given the talent the team has had in the past few years, it’s a surprise they haven’t been able to win another Cup until now. Yet with an entire nation behind their cause, and a country with true loyalty to their game, maybe the wait was right and it was fitting. The victory now will be more welcomed, covered and lauded than ever — fully deserved, as it should be.

You can reach Sports Editor/Reporter Paolo Uggetti here or follow him on Twitter @PaoloUggetti