Twenty years ago, it was difficult to consistently watch soccer on television in the United States, but an explosion of popularity and accessibility have skyrocketed the sport’s prominence across the country, and Nebraska has been no exception.
Justin Brunken, co-founder and president of Lincoln based soccer support group American Outlaws, a supporters group for the United States men’s and women’s national teams, said in the early 2000s, it could be frustrating to be a soccer supporter in the U.S. due to inaccessibility.
Brunken said when he began watching soccer in the late 1990s, the only regularly available soccer programming in the U.S. was the Premier League Review, a highlights compilation of matches from the English league. He said he remembers staying up until late at night and waking up early in the morning to watch the 2002 FIFA World Cup matches televised live from Korea and Japan.
Matches for both international and club teams were often not televised, Brunken said, and it was difficult to connect with other soccer fans.
“There just wasn’t communication, it wasn’t consistent, there wasn’t stuff for every single game across the country,” he said. “So we just decided at that point, let’s just tell people where we’re going to meet up.”
A few Lincoln fans would gather for games at Captain Jack’s Bar, a downtown bar that would show every U.S. match, he said, but he and the others wanted more. In 2006, they decided to found American Outlaws, an official supporters group for the team, with the Lincoln chapter as its first.
“We had this group of fans in Lincoln, Nebraska, that wanted to not only watch games in a bar together, but also band together with fans from all across the country and be organized in the stadium consistently,” Brunken said.
Chapters sprung up in cities and towns across the country, until membership reached its peak at over 30,000 members around the 2014 World Cup, he said. And the popularity of European club soccer rose alongside international matches, he said, as more of it became televised and accessible in the U.S.
“I remember, back in the day, we would have one game televised,” Brunken said, “now you don’t even have enough time in the week to watch it all.”
The U.S. men’s national team has struggled in recent years, failing to qualify for the last world cup in 2018. With the COVID-19 pandemic following closely on that tournament’s heels, he said, it was difficult to keep fans engaged and excited about the organization.
But since then, the team has bounced back, Brunken said, and the organization is already gearing up for summer international matches and the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in Qatar this November.
Right now, he said, American Outlaws has more than 200 chapters in the U.S., as well as one in London and one in Mexico City, and there are more than 21,000 members. Brunken said he encourages fans to experience the sport with other people, rather than watching alone, because of the unique sense of community those gatherings can bring.
“A lot of people there’s not too many goals scored in a soccer game, but when a goal is scored it means more than yourself, and you can build off the intensity and the passion of other people around you,” he said, “and it probably means more than when a goal is scored when you’re at home.”
And fans of European professional club soccer have started supporters groups as well, including Liverpool Football Club Lincoln, a group that supports Liverpool Football Club according to Sam Kiddoo, founder of LFC Lincoln. For a long time, he said, supporters would gather in whichever bars were showing matches. Eventually, he and a friend convinced the owner of McKinney’s Pub to show almost every Liverpool game.
Big matches for the team, including tournament finals and games against rivals, can fill the bar with supporters, but a regular weekly match brings in about 10 to 15 people, Kiddoo said.
Liverpool’s success in recent years, reaching three European Cup finals in five years and winning the Premier League in 2020, has helped the club to grow, and so has the growth of soccer support generally in the US. Kiddoo credits some of the sport’s growth to the popularity of the video game FIFA, which features both club and international soccer teams and has increased familiarity with the sport.
Liverpool FC in particular reaches out to fans to make them feel like a part of the team and its tradition, Kiddoo said, which aids cohesion among supporters. But supporting a team halfway across the world can be difficult, and hard to explain to domestic sports fans.
Kiddoo said he’s been lucky enough to visit Anfield, the stadium where Liverpool plays, but even for fans who have never been out of the U.S., supporting Liverpool makes you feel like you are a part of something bigger than yourself.
“I’ve been supporting the club long enough now that it’s really the only sports team I care about,” he said.