"I didn't have a gauge as to who was the worst outlaw. I just recognized allies: my people."—Hunter S. Thompson
I joined the American Outlaws last summer, mostly to get the cool T-shirt and discounts, but also to get some sense of this supporters group that seemed to grow out of nowhere. I paid my dues and got my shirt in good time, then all I heard from them were emails announcing discount tickets and travel packages to Brazil.
No biggie, we all hate bothersome associations, and the occasional “AO” emails didn’t clog my inbox.
So I was surprised last week when I got an email from the “Louisville Outlaws” announcing an event to watch the U.S. vs. Mexico friendly. Surprised because I didn’t know that Louisville had an Outlaws chapter, much less that they would reach out to me and other Outlaws members.
I gave a Facebook “attend” response and on Wednesday I arrived an hour early to get something to eat before the festivities started at 9 p.m. with a World Cup trivia contest. As I walked into the Skybar at Saints I spotted a banner hanging on the outside of the building that said “Home of the Louisville Outlaws” with a Budweiser logo next to it.
I thought I would have the place to myself for a bit, but three guys wearing different versions of previous U.S. men's national team jerseys greeted me. I was introduced to the chapter president Brian, the vice-president, Brandon, and the treasurer, Peter. Peter said that they were the “board of directors,” which Brian and Brandon scoffed at before Peter pointed out that this is what it said in the minutes from a previous meeting. So they reluctantly agreed that they were indeed the "board."
I learned later from Josh, one of the chapter’s founding members, that the Louisville chapter was founded 10 days after the end of the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa. There was some debate later on over whether or not they were the 34th or 35th chapter and one Outlaw insisted they were the fifth.
As Outlaws filtered into the Skybar they were greeted as friends and indeed Brian told me that he and his wife travelled with the Outlaws to the Costa Rica World Cup qualifier last summer where they “made 40 friends for life.”
The “board” had the audio-visuals ready to go for the trivia contest that pitted four tables of teams against each other in a written answer format. We were told to put away our Internet-enabled devices, but several of us were refreshing the U.S. Soccer Facebook page waiting for the announcement of the Nats’ starting XI, so we were allowed to keep our devices and put on the honor system not to look up any answers.
The trivia contest began with identifying 15 flags from nations that qualified for the World Cup finals. My team missed Iran, though I had it right and was overruled by the team. Whatever status I got from this was soon squashed when I insisted that Tony Meola had more caps than Kasey Keller. Meola tallied 100 caps to Keller’s 102—so much for my know-it-all status.
We finished second.
With the trivia action over the crowd, which now numbered over 40 Outlaws, was clearly anxious for the game to begin, and many of us drifted out to the patio where we could talk over our last-minute game assessments. I was surprised to see that Landon Donovan was not in the starting XI, but no one else seemed concerned. Josh made the point that seemingly extreme coaching decisions were part of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s coaching repertoire.
Klinsmann can be a blunt taskmaster, letting his players know exactly what he thinks of their performances. The coach then leaves it to the player to decide if he wants to work harder to achieve his goals. Those who want it, go for it, and those who don’t, do something else.
Forward Jozy Altidore’s game markedly improved after Klinsmann left him off one of his qualifying rosters. Jozy made it clear what he wants. Now Klinsmann is asking Donovan what he wants.
Josh was also quick to point out that Klinsmann is adept at building relationships with his players and that it was this skill, more than any other factor, that probably led Julian Green to leave the German national team pool and commit to the United States.
Josh didn’t buy into the speculation that Green was promised a place on the final World Cup roster: “That just isn’t the kind of thing Klinsmann would do, he expects hard working players and there just isn’t enough time for Green to show that.” He agreed with me that a move like that could destabilize the work-ethic culture Klinsmann preaches and carefully cultivates.
We got so engrossed talking soccer that we nearly missed the kickoff. As the last notes of the "Star Spangled Banner" died away, we found our places inside. Brian saved me a chair at the board’s board, but I didn’t feel like sitting so stood next to him and leaned on a post.
We were both concentrating on the game when the U.S. earned a corner kick in 15th minute. The U.S. set up with three players on the goal line in front of the Mexican goalie. “Interesting play,” I said, just as Brian was saying, “Now that’s unusual.” Goal!
I had to watch the play several times on my DVR to see how the unusual formation fooled El Tri’s defense. The three U.S. players on the goal line completely distracted the goalie and sucked in four Mexican defenders. Meanwhile, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley were alone in the box with only two defenders between them and a wide-open back half of the goal. Graham Zusi dropped in a perfect delivery, the Mexican ‘keeper was too concerned with the three Americans standing in front of him and Bradley beat his man to the open goal.
Any bets on whether or not Berti Vogts had a hand in that one?
After the hand-slapping celebration there were several comments on the cleverly designed play. Someone said the Mexicans made a mistake by not having a defender on the back post. I asked Peter, who, like me, coaches teams of teenage boys, if he puts a player on each post when defending corner kicks. “We use zonal marking, so yeah, we defend at the posts.” I do the same with my teams, and Peter and I concurred that the Mexican defense simply didn’t know what to do with the Americans’ unusual set piece formation and didn’t have a free safety at the back post.
The mood in the bar was sky high as the Nats dominated possession, something we’ve never done against our archnemesis. Usually it’s the Mexican fans yelling “Ole!” after each keep-away pass, but on this night it was our boys playing keep away, at one point stringing together 40-plus passes and eliciting American choruses of “Ole!”
Brian wasn’t as impressed as I was: “That’s all fine, but we didn’t do anything with it.”
True, but it was still great to see the El Tri chasing us for once, and all of the slick passing paid off in the 28th minute when Dempsey found Tony Beltran wide on the right. Beltran squared himself and delivered a beautiful cross to Bradley, who was making a deep near-post run as he flicked the ball with his head into the path of Chris Wondolowski, who lost his defender by peeling away to the back post.
Dos a cero!
The ensuing celebration was as much for Wondolowski as it was for the score line. Everyone wanted to see Wondolowski do well, to convince Klinsmann to take him to Brazil, even if he doesn’t play. “Just having a guy like that in the locker room is worth a roster spot,” Brian offered.
Several of us drifted out to the patio at half time, and our joy at the Nats’ play in the first half kept us talking after the second half started. We were still extolling the virtues of Klinsmann and Bradley when Mexico found its own set-piece goal off of an illegal pick.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last call the officials missed as they stole the winning goal from Eddie Johnson late in the game. Johnson was so clearly onside that he actually ran an additional two steps, onside, before he broke beyond the back line to receive the ball and finish with a great curler to the back post.
So we were all frustrated, and rather than losing our temper at more bad CONCACAF officiating, our attention and discussion turned to the play of the latest wunderkind, Julian Green.
Like all USMNT fans, the Outlaws were looking forward to seeing if Green could live up to the hype. Josh was similarly intrigued, but he was worried about the hype: “I’m afraid that he’s going to get dubbed the next US Soccer savior which has not boded well in the past. He’s the next 'big guy,' but he is still a kid and I wouldn’t want to put too much on his shoulders. I just don’t expect too much, too soon, and I’m just glad he’s wearing a U.S. kit.”
Green’s first touch was a header that went on target but was intercepted by the Mexican midfield. Green’s first real run with the ball came 90 seconds later as he took a layoff pass from Dempsey and tried to attack down the left flank. He was quickly double-teamed and went down on first contact.
Green is slightly built, his 18-year-old body still not filled out. He did well controlling the ball in tight spaces, giving us a hint of his acclaimed technical skills. But Green seemed to go down or get knocked off the ball rather easily every time a defender challenged him physically.
Green slipped on the grass in the 80th minute and stayed down, allowing Mexico a dangerous attack down its right flank. He got up holding his left shoulder and left the game for a minute before returning. One of the Outlaws called out “Welcome, Mr. Glass!” From “savior” to “soft” in less than 20 minutes—soccer fans have always been a notoriously fickle lot.
Then the CONCACAF crew added insult to injury in the 87th minute when Green made a strong run at two Mexican defenders just outside the penalty box. The young man made a veteran move, slipping the ball past and then running tight to the defender, a move intended to give the defender two bad choices—foul the attacker or let him go. In this case, the defender clearly stuck his leg into Green’s path, an obvious foul, but the referee standing just a few yards away declined the invitation.
To Green’s credit, he kept coming and showed his willingness to take on defenders and make dangerous runs at the defense. El Tri’s double-teams demonstrated that the Mexican defenders were wary of Green’s skills. He showed good technical abilities and some tactical sense, so even if he didn’t bag a hat trick in his debut, the potential was obvious.
It was after 1 a.m. and the bar was closing when the final whistle blew. Only half of the original 40 Outlaws stuck around for closing time. Brian told me they usually have around 80 at these events, surmising that the late start on a work night kept the numbers down.
Hardcore American soccer fans have waited a long time for the sport to grow, for the converts to grow from recreational soccer players—the No. 2 youth sport—into the consumers that advertisers crave, for a coach like Klinsmann to start laying a foundation for a men’s program that is as successful as the women’s, and they’ve waited a long time for a nationwide effort to successfully organize the growing fanbase.
It used to be that a local bar, either a pub or a cantina, showed the games and a few fans would gather, drawn by word of mouth and pure chance; and just try getting the local sports bar to put one of the TVs on a match. The Internet made it possible for these outlaws to find each other and meet at match-friendly watering holes. Now the information flow of “social media” comes along and connects more people, enabling a more efficient transfer of information, just as the first large cohorts of soccer kids are coming of age, and the potential for a large and permanent foothold in the American sports landscape has never been greater.