Where is everybody?
It's a Tuesday night, almost 9 p.m., and Barrett's Barley Corn on Leavenworth Street is hosting another watch party for the U.S. men's national soccer team. A World Cup qualifier against Panama. At least it's supposed to.
But just before kickoff, Barrett's is pretty quiet. The NBA Finals and the Kansas City Royals occupy the TVs. Steam rises from the kitchen. Patrons move between the bar and the sand volleyball court.
This is it? This is one of Omaha's best-kept sports secrets?
Just then, a stranger in a red “American Outlaws” T-shirt points to the back of the bar. The basement.
Enter a bright yellow hallway, turn a corner, descend the concrete steps and there — in a room with five long tables, four American flags, three whirling ceiling fans, two big-screen TVs and a stuffed moose on the wall (wearing a stars-and-stripes bandanna over its nose) — is a local chapter of a rapidly growing national fan fraternity based in Lincoln.
Their mission: Reshape how the world — and this city — looks at American soccer.
Most are strangers, they come in small packs. Some are immigrants. But they share a common language. During the next two (tense) hours, they chant a lot. They curse a little. They drink beer from plastic cups and pound fists against pine walls and dream of a 2014 Brazilian vacation.
But first, “Hats off!” someone yells.
Sixty people rise, stare at the TVs, put their hands on their hearts and sing every word. And then the first chant begins. “USA! USA! USA! USA!”
The American Outlaws have a long way to go. But give 'em this much: They never forget where they came from.
* * *
A spiritless slab of concrete. That's where the American Outlaws came from.
During the 2002 World Cup, Lincoln native Korey Donahoo and a few buddies got hooked on U.S. soccer — they were students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
They started going to games around the country. They grew increasingly interested in the team, but increasingly frustrated by fan organization. One trip — a World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio — they had the time of their life tailgating and cheering with American fans. The next road trip, January 2007 in Los Angeles, they found a boring parking lot.
“We literally sat with our rental car and lawn chairs and thought, man, somebody has to do something,” Donahoo said.
American soccer has slowly gained ground in Donahoo's lifetime. A professional league started. Academies have sprung up. TV exposure has improved. But uniting U.S. soccer supporters under one roof has frustrated everyone. The country was too big, the media attention too dim.
In September 2007, Donahoo and his partners gave it a shot anyway. They made a website and business cards. They rounded up a few dozen soccer fans from Lincoln, pooled their money and rented a bus bound for Chicago, where the U.S. was playing Brazil. (On the way, somebody picked up the Nebraska-Wake Forest football game on a phone and played it over the bus PA system.)
At Soldier Field, Donahoo and Co. went to every tailgate and tried to sell strangers on a nationwide membership organization called the American Outlaws. For $20, they promised a T-shirt, a stars-and-stripes bandanna and a chance to join a vibrant community.
At first, Donahoo received about one membership order per week. He took it to work, so people could see he wasn't crazy — “Everybody thought I was an idiot.”
Slowly activity increased, powered by social media. Two orders a week, then a small box, then a big box. The Outlaws gained attention nationally with their chants, their songs and their pregame marches into the stadium.
In the 2010 World Cup, membership doubled to 4,000. And 60 Outlaws traveled to South Africa. Right before the famous Algeria game, they were marching into the stadium when Donahoo saw a convoy of police leading a bus. The U.S. national team! The Outlaws jumped and screamed and pounded on the windows.
After Landon Donovan scored the game-winning goal, he and coach Bob Bradley referenced the meeting on the road. The Outlaws had arrived.
Small-world moments occur all the time for Donahoo. He sees somebody wearing an Outlaws shirt in Lincoln. Or spots Outlaws in the stands on TV. Two weeks ago, he received an email from a guy in San Francisco who stopped in a Mission District store to look for star-spangled shorts. He and his wife were heading to the U.S.-Panama game in Seattle.
The clerk asked, “Are you guys Outlaws?”
Donahoo isn't satisfied yet. The mainstream sports media “still sort of snickers when they talk about soccer,” he said. “When the MLS is starting to be up there with NFL and baseball and NHL coverage, then we'll know we made it.”
But American Outlaws has 31,000 Twitter followers. And Donahoo is busy enough to open up a little office in his house.
He works four days a week as a civil engineer for the state. Wednesdays he prepares for another World Cup summer. He counts 7,000 to 8,000 national members and 83 local chapters.
Omaha was No. 58.
* * *
“We love you, we love you, we love you and where you go we'll follow, we'll follow, we'll follow, 'cause we the support the U.S., the U.S., the U.S., and that's the way we like it, we like it, we like it ...”
Back at Barrett's on June 11, the chants are coming fast and furious. Four days after a 92nd-minute win against Jamaica, the U.S. has momentum. So do these Outlaws. Friday night, fans were spilling out of the party room into the volleyball court. At 9 p.m. on a weeknight, the crowd is a little smaller, but the room is still packed.
At the 6-minute mark, U.S. star Clint Dempsey fires a shot over the bar, drawing an “Ooooooooh!!” from the room.
Dempsey is beloved for his skill, but also for his temper. Last year, he got into it with a Jamaican and made a face so comically menacing, an Outlaw blew up the image and turned it into a cutout. It sits like a prop between the two TVs at Barrett's.
“When the saints go marching in, oh when the saints go marching in ...”
In the 22nd minute, Michael Bradley's shot from the center is blocked inadvertently by Dempsey. The room lets out a collective “Aaaaaah!”
Soccer games are a constant cycle of anticipation, then frustration. The U.S. attacks, fails, then attacks again. At home, the action might get repetitive. But here, the Outlaws fuel each other's excitement.
“I. I believe. I believe that. I believe that we. I believe that we will. I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win!”
Leading the chants is Joey Anthone, an emergency room nurse who owns more than 100 soccer jerseys. His wife hates it.
“I feel like Paris Hilton sometimes going through my closet,” he said. “Which U.S. jersey am I going to wear tonight?”
He picked Donovan's No. 10. Anthone grew up a baseball fan in Pasadena, Calif. Then the World Cup came to his back yard the same summer his heroes went on strike.
“I just couldn't understand why these guys didn't want to play baseball,” he said.
Anthone started going to games along the West Coast. The players were mostly college kids. The crowds were mostly soccer moms.
“El Salvador would draw more fans than the United States,” he said. “It was just so disappointing. It was like, what are we doing?”
Anthone graduated and enrolled at Creighton — he was born in Omaha. A few years later, he was watching the U.S. play at Cuba. ESPN cameras kept showing three guys wearing red, white and blue bandannas.
“And I'm like, who the hell is down there dressed like a bandit? In Cuba!”
Soon he was meeting with Donahoo and AO Vice President Justin Brunken over beer and pizza, trying to persuade them he was right to start an Omaha chapter. He needed 25 members and a bar that would play U.S. games — with the sound on.
Anthone passed the test. Now he's the one with a bandanna around his neck. Almost 20 years he's followed American soccer — more than most in this room — and he feels a sense of ownership. Pride in its progress. And a sometimes-overwhelming sense of patriotism.
Especially when the U.S. pulls off one of its trademark late goals. Everybody at Barrett's during the Jamaica game, he said, will remember the scene in the 92nd minute.
“It's like a drug,” Anthone said. “They keep coming back to get another hit of that drug. They want that feeling again of, 'Oh, I can't believe we're going to tie,' or 'I can't believe we're going to lose,' and then the U.S. pulls it off again. It's a rush.”
In the 36th minute, Jozy Altidore receives a cross from Fabian Johnson and delivers the first goal of the night, sending CenturyLink Field in Seattle into mayhem. Seventeen hundred miles away, the Outlaws jump on chairs, exchange high-fives and hugs, pound the ceiling.
“At home when we score, I jump off the couch and wake up my wife,” Anthone will say later. “Here, I jump off a chair and push my brother into the wall.
“It's way better.”
In the second half, the U.S. tacks on another goal. The Outlaws sing the beautiful lyrics of “God Bless America” and the not-so-beautiful lyrics of “You're not going to Brazil!” (Sorry Panama, it's true.)
The clock winds down, and at 11 p.m., it's over, 2-0. America's red-hot soccer summer continues. Before he leaves and prepares for another 12-hour shift in the ER, Anthone makes sure he takes two things home:
The American flag on the wall. And the bandanna from the moose's nose.