Pittsburgh soccer fans resolute despite U.S. defeat

Several hundreds of soccer fans traded in living rooms and dim sports bars for the sunlit Market Square on Tuesday — only to watch the U.S. men’‍s national team fall to Belgium 2-1 in a nail-biter of a match that ended the squad’‍s World Cup run.

Revelry reigned for more than 90 minutes as the game remained scoreless. American flags, together with pumping fists, dotted the square at the Downtown watch party organized by the city in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and the Market Square Merchants Association. 

Then there was a quick exodus as disenchanted viewers began dispersing following Belgium’‍s two goals, the ball hitting the U.S.’‍s net in rapid succession during extra time. Fans briefly rallied when the U.S. came back with a goal of its own. After a prolonged chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A,” the crowd fell silent as the reality of the loss set in.

Lindsey Matusak, 22, said simply that the result was “heartbreaking.”

But Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who was there to kick off the festivities and then returned to watch the end, had a positive message for soccer fans crushed by the defeat. 

“The sport has attracted 10 million new fans in the past two weeks,” he said, likening the recent excitement surrounding soccer to the attention given to hockey following Team USA’‍s win at the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. 

The scene around the jumbotron screen was proof of Mr. Peduto’‍s observation. John Fresca, 44, was shouting instructions at the U.S. team. He said he had only started following soccer in June when the World Cup began in Brazil.

Of the scene in Market Square, Mr. Peduto said the event was “beautiful — a perfect display of Pittsburgh.”

Some, indeed, had come for the sport, including Eric Walker, 22, who played four years of varsity soccer at the University of Pittsburgh. He came with his golden retriever, Aida, who wore a matching U.S. men’‍s national team soccer jersey. Others were there for the “hype,” as Sean Brkovich, 19, put it. He said he was more excited by the prospect of Pittsburgh “making it on TV” than the results of the World Cup. 

“It’‍s more about the party,” Mr. Brkovich said.

Mikey and Big Bob of the KISS Morning Freak Show, who hosted the event, took it upon themselves to make sure it was a party, singling out particularly devoted fans and raffling off Pirates tickets during halftime. As the crowd swelled at the end of the workday, Mikey asked fans to make people still caught in nearby offices envious: “Make some noise for everyone in the buildings,” he cried. The fans let out a collective howl in response.

That sense of community is what made the event a success, said Amanda Lewis, 35, of Lawrenceville. 

“Everyone moves at the same time,” she said. “It’‍s so much better than watching with four or five people in a bar.”

When the match was called, fans held their heads high, finding silver linings in the loss. They saluted in particular the performance of goalkeeper Tim Howard. 

“Maybe next year — or I guess in four years,” said brothers Bob and Mark Lancia. 

Isaac Stanley-Becker: istanley-becker@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3775. Twitter: @isb_isaac.

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