COLUMBUS, Ohio -- I'd vote for Alexi Lalas for American soccer president. You would too if you were in Columbus on Monday night to see the ESPN analyst and former U.S. international give a brief but impassioned speech about American soccer's growth to a collection of fanatical supporters gathered at a bar that’s more used to hosting fans of college football teams than soccer.
Lalas made his stump speech (so to speak) from a balcony off the back of the temporarily repurposed college bar in front of a boisterous throng of red-white-and-blue-painted, bandana-ed, caped, masked, costumed and tattooed men and women -- every one a card-carrying member of the American soccer party -- the night before the United States took on Mexico in the home of La Guerra Fria and the hallowed "Dos a cero."
If soccer really was a political party, this group would be the rank and file. But since this isn't politics, it's a party of a different sort, albeit one still infused with a purpose: the celebration of soccer and the right to unfettered patriotism.
Never before has the American flag been so creatively deployed as body decoration on such a large scale.
Lalas’s audience was the American Outlaws, but you probably already knew that. Rowdy and unapologetic, the Outlaws are the foremost proselytizers of the U.S. national soccer teams across the country. For the Outlaws, the U.S. men's once-a-World Cup qualifying-cycle visit to Columbus to take on Mexico is a massive blowout, a chance to bring the full power of a grassroots movement-gone-mainstream to the biggest game of the year.
The 9,000 supporters tickets the Outlaws sold for Columbus, and the ancillary events they staged around the game, wasn't a coming-out party. After all, the Outlaws announced their presence to the world a long time ago.
But USA-Mexico was the fullest expression yet of the power of the group and the magnetic energy they create. If you saw the Outlaws on television, bouncing, singing, and chanting -- and doing it all the full 90 minutes -- you saw them at their best.
The mass of humanity Lalas addressed -- from above an over-sized American flag -- ate up every word of his address. Most of the young crowd had little or no recollection of his days playing for the United States but celebrated him as a hero nonetheless.
The Outlaws don't restrain themselves. If it's American and it's soccer, that's more than enough to justify raising a drink (or six) and chanting at full volume. Whether he's an ESPN soccer analyst or a World Cup veteran, in the eyes of the Outlaws, Lalas' direct approach fits right in with the their ethos.
These soccer patriots came from all over, most attached to various AO member chapters spread across the country. Many of them, despite living thousands of miles apart, greet each other as old friends. Connections made from trips to many of the same games and staying in touch through social media gives the group a sense of community that goes well beyond events like those of Monday night or the coordinated support flowing from the stands at a USMNT home game. American Outlaws aren't American Outlaws only on game day.
As fans greeted friends they might have seen as recently as the previous week in Costa Rica, others introduced themselves to fans from the other side of the country who shared their overriding passion for the USMNT. Meanwhile, a giant portable screen displayed highlights from the U.S. qualifying campaign.
A DJ blasted pop hits the crowd lustily sang at the top of their voices. Faces in the crowd pointed themselves out on the screen as the highlights rolled through the U.S. win in Jamaica, the stunning draw at Azteca and the authoritative defeat of Panama in Seattle.
But the party on Monday, despite its size, debauchery and community spirit, was merely a prelude to the performance of the Outlaws at Crew Stadium on Tuesday night. The demand through AO for tickets was so large the group filled up a full nine sections of the first-generation American soccer stadium. In the center of it all was a temporary stand erected to increase capacity at the north end of the stadium where an empty stage typically sits, barren, during MLS games.
There, a jam-packed group of American Outlaws led the proverbial charge with nonstop singing, chanting and jumping that did not waver throughout the game.
But to single out that one stand as somehow more passionate would be unfair to the rest of the Outlaws, not to mention the nearly 15,000 other USA faithful who dropped the pretense of personal space and squeezed themselves into the yellow bleacher seats. One section to lead, the rest of the assembled masses to follow.
From my vantage point in the south end of the stadium -- equally as packed with crazed passion that never stopped bellowing and heaving as any in the building -- it seemed the whole stadium was engaged in the act of willing their team to victory.
It hardly mattered that a smattering of green worn by Mexico fans invaded most of the non-AO sections; the focus was the boys on the field and their mandate to do to Mexico what they always did to Mexico.
Eddie Johnson’s 49th-minute opener set the stadium alight. Twenty-four thousand-plus partisans erupted in a guttural roar, commemorative scarves flying recklessly through the air. When the goal celebrations ended and the game returned to its previous rhythms, the buzz in the building remained, stronger than before. Anticipation morphed from tenuous confidence to outright bloodlust. Another goal and the Americans would fulfill their Columbus destiny, the same 2-0 scoreline that marked all three of the previous encounters with Mexico in Ohio.
A single goal and a shutout would do the job and satisfy the fans, but a second tally would make it truly sweet. A second tally would prove the universe was still on their side.
The Americans took the game to an obviously deflated Mexico. The fans smelled fear, kept up their intensity and egged on the red, white and blue. The Outlaws continued their lyrical assault, continued to awe the senses with their volume and movement.
Then Mix Diskerud slipped behind the Mexican back line, pinged a cross in front of the Mexican goal and found an arriving Landon Donovan on the back post. Goal, 78th minute. Dos a cero. Bedlam.
In the remaining 12 minutes, that chaos mellowed into the smug delight home fans are allowed when their team is winning. “Dos a cero” chants rang out intermittently between other chants, less an expression of love for their team than of righteous pride aimed at a rival. "This is OUR house" the crowd chanted early in the game. If there was any doubt about that after three consecutive dos a ceros, it was obliterated.
There was a postscript to the American win and the full house that supported them so vibrantly. When the Honduras-Panama match ended in a draw, securing the U.S. berth in next year’s World Cup in Brazil, the players came out of the tunnel to celebrate. A collection of die-hards who stayed to see the CONCACAF qualifier play out on the big screen celebrated with them, extending the biggest day of the year deep into the night.
The people, led by the American Outlaws, came for “Dos a cero.” They left having played their own massive part in getting it.