June 16, 2014 at 10:03 pm

John Niyo

Area's growing soccer base shares in USA jubilation

Daniel Marcaccio, of Ypsilanti (standing in glasses) celebrates with his fellow fans after the United States' Clint Dempsey scores 29 seconds into the match. Maracaccio joined soccer fans watching the United States vs. Ghana in the World Cup at Thomas Magee's Sporting Club and Whiskey Bar near Eastern Market, in Detroit (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Detroit — The first song broke out just before 5 p.m., about an hour before kickoff, as the fans in red, white and blue belted out a couple raucous refrains of “Oh, when the Yanks go marching in …”

Seemed fitting, actually, because they were marching in, by the dozens, wearing scarves and ordering beers “in the numbers,” as that pirated little ditty goes.

And by the time the U.S. men’s soccer team lined up for the national anthem before its World Cup opener at Estádio das Dunas in Natal, Brazil, they were lined up four and five deep at the bar for a spirited sing-along inside Thomas Magee’s Sporting House Whiskey Bar in Eastern Market.

“Feels like the Amazon in here,” laughed Thomas Leek, 32, of Novi, wiping his brow for effect as he ordered another round. “So this is perfect.”

For fans looking to soak up the World Cup atmosphere — and maybe a shirt or two — Thomas Magee’s probably is the perfect place to start in Detroit, though it’s hardly the only one. The bar opened for business last fall and owner Erik Olson routinely opens his doors early for soccer fans looking for a home away from home.

This was the venue designated for World Cup watch parties by members of the local American Outlaws chapter — the unofficial U.S. national team supporters group. And as such, “this is the place for us,” said Daniel Marcaccio, the 28-year-old Ypsilanti resident who was the unofficial ringleader of Monday’s gathering.

The Outlaws — the name is drawn from soccer’s “outlaw” status in the U.S. when the group formed in 2007 —have grown in numbers and visibility over the years. They’re featured in those “I believe that we will win!” promotional ads airing on ESPN this month.

And if you weren’t in the mood already, they’ll get you there in a hurry. With a crowd of 150 or more packed into Thomas Magee’s for the USA-Ghana game, the fans already were at a fever pitch for kickoff. A minute later, it was bedlam, as Clint Dempsey scored the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history, reminding many of the scene from the last World Cup and Landon Donovan’s iconic, last-gasp goal against Algeria.

“Landon who?” joked Leek, though he’d later admit he regretted saying that, as the Americans started dropping like flies — first Jozy Altidore, then Dempsey and … “C’mon, enough!” someone yelled — as the tension mounted.

Tension mounts

For the better part of an hour, it went on like this, the opening euphoria unraveling into shrieking trepidation as the Black Stars from Ghana took control of the play and eventually tied the match in the 73rd minute.

But then John Brooks etched his name in U.S. soccer lore, burying a header off a corner kick in the 86th minute and spilling a freshly-poured beer over there in the corner at Thomas Magee’s in the process.

“I believe!” Leek yelled, ignoring the spill and any sense of inhibition as he celebrated the final minutes of the Americans’ 2-1 win.

Believe what you will about this game and where it fits in the U.S. sporting landscape, but as an unabashed soccer fan myself, I have to believe this is only the tip of the iceberg, what we’re seeing —and hearing — at the start of what is already an entertaining World Cup.

Carving its niche

Soccer will never mean here what it means just about everywhere else. In Ghana, the government was rationing electricity and buying more from neighboring countries to avoid widespread blackouts during Monday’s World Cup opener. In Detroit, they ran out of Corona and ice buckets at Thomas Magee’s — hardly a state emergency.

Nor will it be as big a draw as some of the other major professional sports — football, basketball, baseball — anytime soon here in the United States, though last week’s Brazil-Croatia opener on ESPN drew nearly as many viewers (4.4 million, up 55 percent from 2010) as Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals (5 million) did on NBC.

But soccer is just as easy to find these days. And that goes beyond the millions of families caught up in youth soccer leagues, or Major League Soccer teams averaging nearly 19,000 fans per game. More than 31.5 million Americans watched some of the English Premier League on NBC’s family of networks this past season.

You can complain about soccer being rammed down your throats, if you must. But just know that your audience is dwindling in numbers. Jed Drake, an ESPN senior vice president and executive producer for the network’s World Cup coverage, says he viewed the U.S. as “really the last holdout” of “indifference” toward the tournament. But, he added, “We fundamentally changed that in 2010.”

Marcaccio, for one, thinks he’s right, and not just because the U.S. broadcasters don’t feel compelled to explain the offside rule or stoppage time anymore. Twenty years ago, Marcaccio was an impressionable 9-year-old sitting in the stands for a World Cup game at the Silverdome. Eight years ago, he watched the World Cup from an orphanage in Kenya where he was working as a volunteer. As a fan, he’s seen it from all viewpoints. And to sit here now, watching the fans streaming through the door on a Monday afternoon in the middle of June, well, it’s something see, all right.

“For some people, it’s once every four years. For us, it’s every day,” Marcaccio said. “But that’s why it’s funny when people talk about ‘soccer snobs.’ I mean, I don’t care. Show up to watch. I’ll teach you. I’ll buy you a beer. But don’t put us down. Everyone in this world is watching the games.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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