Local fans react to tough draw

Sgt. Rob Hale, left, of Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Tex., and dozens of World Cup fans watching the U.S.A. - Portugal game at Naggy’s McGee’s Irish Pub react as Portugal scores an equalizing goal in the final few seconds of Sunday’s game to tie the score 2 - 2 after the U.S. team had taken the lead in the second half.

It was over, just a smattering of seconds left, and we were into the next round.

The USA, a soccer story?

Then it happened.

Army Sgt. Robert Hale slammed his ball cap to the floor and buried his head in his hands.

Fans were stunned. Euphoria turned to devastation as quickly as flicking a light switch.

A 2-1 certain victory turned into a 2-2 draw with Portugal, and the crowd at Naggy McGee’s Irish Pub in downtown Grand Junction was stunned along with an entire nation Sunday.

Hale is a 2009 Grand Junction High School graduate visiting from Fort Bliss, Texas.

“I’m a soccer fan,” he said, then revealed he’s more of a soccer fan every four years when the World Cup heats up.

“It was just devastating, I thought we were going to win. Devastating,” he said.

Naggy McGee’s was a mix of pure soccer fans and bandwagon fans, but they were all USA fans, and in the end misery had way too much company.

We all know about soccer. The most popular game in the world. Every four years, the World Cup puts soccer on the radar of sports fans in the United States. But the U.S. is still far from a soccer country.

Jeff Shuldener, who donned a Landon Donovan jersey for the game, has been coaching high school soccer in the valley for 39 years, last year with the Fruita Monument High School girls. He knows soccer, loves soccer, and like everyone else at Naggy’s, that second Portugal goal was like a kick in the groin.

It hurt and didn’t stop hurting for a while.

As a football, baseball, basketball, hockey country, the big four dominate our sports fascination every year from season to season.

We all have our favorite teams, but when the World Cup rolls around and when the Olympics arrive, our allegiance is cemented. We are as one for the Red, White and Blue.

When it comes to soccer, Shuldener is the expert and happily shares his analysis with anyone who stops to learn a little more about the game.

He doesn’t mind the bandwagon fans showing up every four years.

“Some people complain about bandwagon fans, but I think it’s great,” he said. “The exposure the World Cup gives to the sport is something that doesn’t happen in a lot of other sports.”

Everyone who talks to Shuldener calls him “Coach,” and Coach lamented the two mistakes that led to the two Portugal goals.

As the U.S. victory appeared to be imminent, some fans started yelling, “Take a knee, take a knee!” Then, they laughed about the football reference during a soccer game.

Then, suddenly the Portugal goal nestled into the twine, and all agony broke loose.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” a fan yelled as he clutched his head and stumbled aimlessly in a circle.

This one hurt. As Sgt. Hale searched for his wayward cap, he just shook his head.

Several minutes after the tying goal, Shuldener closed his eyes and shook his head.

Former high school soccer player Landon Ochs from Hotchkiss came to Grand Junction for Country Jam, but there was no way he was going to miss the big game. He even stopped by Target to invest in some USA gear. With a flag, red, white and blue socks, cap and other patriotic attire, he would have fit right in with the crazy fans at the stadium in Brazil.

When the U.S. took a 2-1 lead, the 19-year-old ran around the room joining in the “USA! USA!” chants.

“It’s cool to see all these people come out and support soccer,” he said. “It doesn’t happen too often.”

Grand Junction High School girls soccer coach Joe Graham also welcomes the bandwagon fans.

“I like seeing people get on the bandwagon because it’s just going to get more and more people watching,” he said. “More people watching soccer is a good thing.”

Shuldener, like all of the other soccer purists, would love to see the game grow in popularity and become a year-round fan favorite.

Maybe it will take a great World Cup run to get that started, but Shuldener said the U.S. players are still a step or two behind the rest of the world soccer powers when it comes to the overall skill level.

Even though more soccer is making its way onto TV throughout the year, soccer matches have no breaks for commercials, and that makes it unappealing to many networks looking for advertising dollars, he said.

Tyler Smith draped himself in the American flag for Sunday’s World Cup game.

“I’m becoming one,” he said about being a soccer fan. “I started to become a fan at the last World Cup. I got really excited at the last one.

“It’s becoming a national sport, slowly but surely.”

Very slowly and not surely. We’re still a Big Four Sports nation with some NASCAR sprinkled in.

But for now, World Cup fever has hit the U.S., and it helps that the World Cup is in the Western Hemisphere this time, allowing fans to more conveniently watch games live.

The U.S. now has one more chance to advance to the next round with its huge match with Germany on Thursday.

Another chance for some World Cup excitement for pure and bandwagon soccer fans alike to embrace.

As Cole Mobley departed Naggy’s, he thrust his arms into the air in jest and proclaimed, “Only two months until football season!”

Too bad Team USA couldn’t take a knee Sunday.

It would have made for a better ending. But that’s not soccer.


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