Sacramento fans cheer the U.S. World Cup soccer team to the bitter end

Apparently, Sacramento really is a soccer town, at least as long as the U.S. and hometown Republic FC teams are playing.

Thousands of fans clad in red, white and blue turned out throughout the region Tuesday to cheer, scream, drink and groan as the American soccer team played a hard-fought – but ultimately losing – effort against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup.

“It’s just unfortunate,” said 23-year-old Sacramentan Dylan Beaty, who squeezed into de Vere’s Irish Pub downtown just before the doormen cut off entry because the bar had reached its capacity of 299 patrons.

Beaty, a musician who stood pressed against a wooden pillar with his 23-year-old friend Kyle Sullivan for more than four hours to watch the match, is one of the countless enthusiasts who refer to the game as “football” and hope it someday will gain the popularity in the United States that it enjoys in the rest of the world.

“I would love for football to become as popular as it is in other countries,” said Beaty, who got hooked on the sport after spending last year studying music in Germany. “It would be amazing, but from past experience I don’t think it’s going to happen, unfortunately. I think the hype’s going to die down.”

Maybe, but you couldn’t tell that Tuesday before the final 2-1 score sent the Americans packing from the World Cup.

Hundreds of people packed downtown Sacramento bars and restaurants to new capacity limits, adorning themselves with U.S. flags painted on their cheeks or planted in back pockets, bike helmets, socks or belts. Chants of “USA!” echoed out of pubs and onto sidewalks, where spectators who didn’t arrive early enough to get inside stood watching through windows.

Mary Cabranes Slater and her friend Natalee Pecorelli played it smart, arriving at Hot Italian at Q and 16th streets by 10:30 a.m. for the 1 p.m. match and staking out tables with their 13-year-old sons by covering one with a huge American flag.

The boys – Gabe Slater and Jacob Warren – are both soccer fans who had no intention of missing Tuesday’s match, and their mothers made it clear who they were rooting for.

“We do not eat Belgian waffles,” Cabranes Slater said emphatically.

Such sentiments were common Tuesday, especially after Belgium scored the first goal late into the match and the crowd at de Vere’s began chanting suggestions about possible uses for waffles.

Jimmy Crabbe, wearing a Belgian flag draped across his back like a cape, was unfazed as he stood amid the boisterous U.S. soccer fans crammed into the pub.

“I can carry the weight, I can handle it,” Crabbe said of the crowd. “I was born and raised in Belgium and I’m pro-U.S., except for today.”

Crabbe, a permanent U.S. resident who has lived here for 14 years, said he had a bet with his wife, Jenn, an American citizen with a U.S. flag painted on her cheek, that whoever lost would seek citizenship with the winning country.

As the lone obvious Belgium supporter at de Vere’s, he was quite popular with American fans posing for photos and hugging him, even as Belgium began pulling away from the U.S. team.

Crabbe is a plumbing executive with a Sacramento firm who said he preferred not to have the company named Tuesday to avoid losing any customers. But you can do the deducing: a soccer-crazed plumbing exec in a town with a new soccer team and a new stadium named for a plumbing company.

Soccer parties were held throughout the region, but the epicenter appeared to be at 16th and L streets, where radio and television trucks lined the streets outside de Vere’s and the Firestone Public House. Doormen at both bars were carefully tallying customers with hand-carried counters to ensure there was no repeat of last week, when overcrowding during the Germany-U.S. match led to some complaints and a $1,000 fine at de Vere’s for exceeding its 164-person capacity.

Entry to both bars was cut off well before the match began to keep crowds at capacity, and people who left at halftime were told there was no guarantee they’d be able to return.

On Tuesday, de Vere’s capacity had been increased to 299 by getting rid of sidewalk tables, a doorman said, and a Sacramento Fire Department inspector who wandered through the crowd at midmatch declared the situation was “fine,” although he declined to elaborate or give his name.

The spectators themselves offered a stark contrast to what can be seen during NFL or major league baseball games, where watching the action can sometimes be an afterthought.

Except for the ones lucky who got there early enough to snag a table, the fans at de Vere’s Tuesday stood roaring support for more than four hours, chanting and yelling until the bitter end. After Belgium scored the first goal of the match, there was silence for the first time, but that quickly turned back to cheering as the U.S. scored its only goal and continued until the match was finally over and people began to pour out onto the sidewalk and head for their cars or offices.

A driver exiting the Department of Public Health parking garage rolled down her window to confirm the worst with one of the dejected pedestrians. “So they lost?” she asked before pulling into the 16th Street traffic.

Whether Tuesday’s standing-room-only scenes at the pubs will repeat themselves when Belgium faces Argentina on Saturday seems doubtful, even with ESPN pushing coverage of the World Cup overtime.

“I’ll be there, for sure,” said Beaty, the musician. “But I can’t honestly say there will be a lot of people there.

“Maybe if Mexico had stayed in there would be more of a crowd, but just from the crowd I saw today it doesn’t mean they’re in it for the football as much as they were because it was the United States.”