NEW YORK — Like many of you, I've spent a proud and perhaps regrettable portion of my life watching sports in bars. Big bars, small bars, sports bars, dive bars. Dark, charming haunts; grimey college taprooms; shiny, boxy-and-big megabars; and open-air, back-porch watering holes. The environment can often affect mood, cheer and overall experience. Some love it, others grow tired of tredging out and dealing with the cost, cramp and noise. Watching sports in a bar? Your mileage and misery may vary.
But I've gotta say, there is nothing like watching World Cup soccer at a public house practically built for such an occasion. It doesn't even feel like, I don't know, America? And maybe that's a good thing. Maybe we're really moving toward a shared existence of national sports soccer fandom that is turning this long-loved global event into an unofficially sanctioned and extended United States holiday.
With the NBA Draft being held in Brooklyn on Thursday, I thought it best to dip down into the city early and take in the United States' final Group G game, against Germany, in the proper setting: on the top floor of Nevada Smiths in the lower east side of Manhattan. The bar is a famous favorite among soccer-adoring fiends. USA Soccer shirts were being sold right at the entrance, and the line to get in 30 minutes before the noon start was easily 30 deep.
Signed jerseys from hundreds of current and former players are on framed display in the foyer. From there, you can go up or down. Four floors, narrow staircases and a hell of a lot of people bubbling up for the most anticipated American soccer game ever, which is to say: the most recent American soccer game ever. There is a renewal at work here, and with each tilt the sport is becoming more prominent.
The spirit of the event is infectious. I've always appreciated soccer, but like millions of Americans, never really felt myself drawn to it until this year. I have a friend who has never spent a syllable on soccer in conversation before, and earlier this week said, "Hey, can we turn on the World Cup?"
Why is this happening now? It's still a question that's not been fully answered.
As the afternoon starts, the "Seven Nation Army," YOU-ESS-AY! and I-believe-that-we-will-win and chants are roaring early and often, of course.
Thankfully, mercifully, the air conditioning was doing its job. The 81-degree, thousand-percent humidity outside made for one of those vintage, unbearably miserable city days where the sun is unrelenting and the pavement is beaming back hell's oven fumes into your body.
I came to meet friends. All of them professionals, all who took the day off to head into the city and experience the World Cup like this, because it's becoming increasingly clear that it's the way we should participate. One is an HR rep; another an assistant director of student activities at a small college in New York; another a district manager who works in loss prevention for a major retail chain; and finally a fine fella who works the tugboats, hauling in crude oil around the harbors of New York City.
The bar was packed with hundreds of people who looked like they gleefully played hooky. It's just one spot. There are thousands others just like it across the nation. In this lounge I spy men in blazers and women in U.S. soccer jerseys. There are hippies, preppies, baby boomers, professionals, professional drinkers and curious interlopers like me. Put it this way: When you're at a bar to watch a soccer game and can no longer identity who the soccer snobs are, the worm has officially turned.
Two dozen red, white or blue bellies are snugged against the oak bar, all eyes angled up. The place is packed, in reality, well beyond fire code. You look around and realize this is probably the way of the future for American sports at World Cup time. Soccer will continue to grow, but this frenzy has pushed us beyond a going-back point. It's cool to be alive and see this country so feverishly embrace a sport like this.
Because when could it happen again? When will the country glom onto an entire event or sport in such a communal way?
It also occurs to me that the closest thing we have to the World Cup, purely in the American sporting scene, is the NCAA Tournament.
The games are approximately the same time (two hours). The format of this event, though more confusing on the surface to casuals, is most closely resembled by the 68-team tournament. Most people watching the event couldn't name you but one player on the screen. And the sport, which is largely ignored in any other setting, becomes the most fevered and communal experience for diehards and drive-bys alike.
This is not to equate college basketball to soccer entirely, of course. The differences are clear. The World Cup is obviously now immensely more popular than the NCAA Tournament because of the national pride that's behind it. Whereas the NCAA Tournament has people rooting for their bracket, this Cup has them pulling for their nation.
The wait is the fun part. The anxiety. Soccer's lack of scoring, yeah it's annoying, but it also capable of creating a vise for tension that's only equaled by the speed and unease of Stanley Cup hockey. The general quiet before the scoring was taking over the bar.
And the best part? In a room of 400 people, I can't find one person staring into their phone. None. What! And believe me, I looked. Without commercials, timeouts or significant stoppages of play, everyone'es faces are glow green as the rows of TVs glare the grass-backed TV feed into the darkened bar. It's a great scene. Only when the U.S. had a couple of corner-kick opportunities did a few pull out their phones for video of what could happen. (Guilty as charged here, too.)
And despite pragmatic confidence coming into the match, at the 75-minute mark, nerves are clearly rising. With Ghana-Portugal at a tie and the U.S. trailing 1-0, all it would take for Clint Dempsey and Co. to get booted is one more Ghana goal. With more and more eyes are on the Ghana-Portugal match, there's a real worry. The chants have ceased for more than 10 minutes now and just as I'm documenting in this in my notebook, Ronaldo scores for Portugal, giving the United States an insurance goal -- and oh there it is, I'm doused in beer.
Expected that. Kind of happy it happened.
With advancement almost a guarantee, at the 84th minute of U.S.-Germany, the bar breaks out into the national anthem. It's so cheesy. It's so great.
The game ends, the plastic cups go flying into the air and the loss is a win. To the elimination stage we go. There is no ambivalence about the outcome. Losing never felt so good, and a sport that was once seen by so many as inferior is now becoming normal.
Crowded, cramped and lubed, this wasn't even a great game, yet the experience was sensational. Why wouldn't you want to do it again? The World Cup is made to be seen in big groups, that are still growing by the game.