By JB Clark
TUPELO – The USA men’s soccer team ultimately lost Tuesday afternoon, but their success in getting to the elimination stage of the FIFA World Cup has played a big role in the slow, but steady, rise in the popularity of soccer in America.
The tables began to fill at Buffalo Wild Wings around 2:30 p.m. and were each accounted for by the time the USA versus Belgium World Cup match began at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Assistant Manager Scott Grady said the restaurant was at absolute capacity during each of the USA men’s soccer team’s previous World Cup games the past three weeks.
“We’ve had to move a lot of people out onto the porch to make room,” he said. “That’s not generally the case for soccer. We might have a few people come in for a Premier League game but people have really started to come out and support the U.S.”
Tupelo High School soccer coach Harris Faucette said the World Cup has garnered far more attention this time around, especially with his players.
“The team has been very excited about it,” he said. “But on the whole, the World Cup has gotten way more air time on more sports stations than in 2010. So many people are interacting with this tournament.”
Particularly in north Mississippi, the sport has grown massively in the past four years, he said.
“So many more schools have teams now, and obviously the more interest there is in the World Cup, the more people will pay attention to the sport in the area.”
Alx Little, 19, of Tupelo, has been a soccer fan since he was born.
“My dad got me into it,” Little said. “He used to play and he was my coach.”
He said the passion surrounding soccer players and fans is what drew him to soccer and that is what is now drawing other people to the USA men’s team.
“The popularity of soccer is growing a lot,” Little said. “I think it’s the passion of the players on the USA team this year and fans being able to root for their country.”
Garrett Rogers, 20, of Tupelo, was rooting for USA along with Little at Buffalo Wild Wings on Tuesday. He has been a soccer fan for 10 years and said the USA team’s status as an underdog and success is what’s drawing so much more interest compared to years past.
“One of the announcers predicted we wouldn’t make it out of the group stage and that made it so much more exciting when we did,” Rogers said.
The excitement in Buffalo Wild Wings during Tuesday’s game was much like that of a college football game, but instead of cheering against each other, all of the fans were united under the American flag.
Chants of “USA,” filled the air during a crucial corner kick in the game’s final regulation minutes. The air was sucked from the room when Belgium scored in extra minutes.
“There has been a big uptick in soccer popularity in the U.S. – big time,” said Timmy Hayden, 31, of Tupelo. “With interest growing in the World Cup like this we’ll get more interest in youth leagues and hopefully see more young talent come out of America.”
Hayden said he has been privileged to have friends who watch the sport, like his girlfriend, Manuela Wilson, who is from Germany, a dynamic that made last week’s game between USA and Germany more interesting, but he said the sport is now much more accessible to even casual sports fans.
Team USA forced the game into extra minutes, keeping it tied at zero during regulation time, and then lost 2-1.
Riley Manning contributed to this story.