Soccer fever: World Cup captivating us like never before

EVERETT — If you find yourself in an Irish pub at 9 a.m. on a weekday, there’s a good chance you have a problem.

A soccer problem, that is. It’s a growing epidemic around these parts, which is why a Herald columnist can convince his boss that an a.m. trip to a local pub constitutes work.

In bars, restaurants and other gathering places around the country, the World Cup is an excuse not just to watch sports at odd hours, but to bond with strangers who share a common rooting interest, which explains a full house at the Irishmen in downtown Everett at a time when the bar usually would be closed.

Of course this is nothing new around these parts. This region always has embraced soccer, and that’s never been more evident than in the past five-and-half seasons since the Seattle Sounders joined Major League Soccer. But even here in our soccer-mad corner of the country, this World Cup seems to be bringing out a new element.

The World Cup always appeals to the casual fan more than any league could, but now more than ever, a crowd like the one at the Irishmen features not just the diehards clad head to toe in red, white and blue, but also people in business attire ducking in for a half, or a couple of postal workers walking in to check the score, or a man in a suit and tie walking in in the 75th minute, seeing the 1-0 score, groaning, then moving along to continue his day.

“It’s growing,” said Brian Smith, manager of the Irishmen. “You can tell it’s definitely growing. Before it was more the hardcore Sounders fans that were here for the last World Cup, but now I’m seeing a lot more people I’ve never seen come in and watch soccer. It’s getting more popular.”

Take, for example, a U.S.-jersey wearing fan like Alex Mazick, who took the morning off from his job at an Edmonds marine supply company to join friends at the bar. Mazick isn’t a crazed soccer fan, he didn’t even grow up playing the game, but this tournament has captured his attention nonetheless.

“I never played soccer as a kid, but it’s very exciting,” Mazick said. “I’m a Sounders fan. I don’t really follow too much else, even keeping track of MLS is a little difficult, but something about the World Cup that makes me want to be aware and participate by watching all the matches.

“There’s excitement, there’s buildup. It’s not a big commitment like you have to sit through a football season. There’s something really global-minded about it. It’s cool to know there are guys in Germany watching this match at the same time … It’s a very communal thing for everybody.”

The one problem with Thursday’s communal gathering was that the game didn’t quite live up to the buildup, at least not for American fans. The U.S. defended well against one of the world’s best teams, but eventually Germany broke through, turning cheers (Tim Howard’s initial save) into dejection and quite a bit of swearing.

The ebbs and flows of the game were complicated by the fact that America’s fates, once it fell behind, were tied to the Portugal-Ghana game going on at the same time. In that game, Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s superstar who assisted on the goal that broke American hearts on Sunday, did the U.S. a huge favor with a late goal that all but clinched America’s trip to the knockout stages of the tournament even with a loss to Germany.

The crowd did let out some big cheers, first when Sounders youngster DeAndre Yedlin came into the game, and later when Clint Dempsey almost found the net in stoppage time.

And if you thought keeping tabs on two close games was tense, you should have seen the Irishmen when, in about the 85th minute, the cable feed went out.

“Unbelievable timing on that,” Smith said. “The breaker blew in the back. I don’t know what caused that.”

For the next five minutes, many fans watched on smart phones, while others contemplated making a run for the nearest bar that might be open before 11 a.m. on a weekday. The feed eventually returned in time to see the U.S. fall in stoppage time despite a couple of late chances, which led to an odd subdued celebration on a day when 1-0 loss was good enough for the U.S. to advance.

“You hate to skate through, but we’re into the knockout round,” said Todd Barry, part of a group of locals for whom Smith saved a seat at the bar by draping a U.S. scarf over a stool.

Added Justin Mobraten, seated two stools over, “As long as you move on, you know?”

Thursday result didn’t provide quite the party the crowd at the Irishmen was hoping for. It did, however, insure that we can all get together and do it again next week as America’s memorable 2014 World Cup continues against Belgium.

Soccer still has a ways to go to catch up with this country’s top sports, but every four years, as we see in big a.m. crowds around the country, the World Cup turns soccer into a very big deal. Why else would we all crowd into an Irish bar on a Thursday morning? Well, aside from St. Patrick’s Day, of course.

“It’s been very good for us,” Smith said of the World Cup crowds. “I wish we could do it every year.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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