WASHINGTON – There aren’t many seats available, and they fill up quickly. Still, people don’t turn away from Lucky Bar. The bar’s customers are content to stand. It’s 2:45 p.m. on a Wednesday, and it is practically impossible to walk around.
There are other bars like Lucky Bar around the country, where Americans’ passion for soccer brews.
New York, Seattle, Austin, Dallas and other cities all have bars, usually Irish pubs, where clubs – some formal, some not – gather to share in their passion for Europe’s top soccer leagues: the English Premiere League, the Spanish La Liga and the continental tournament Champions League.
In the Washington area, pubs like Lucky Bar, including the Elephant and Castle, Ireland’s Four Courts and the Irish Channel host supporters’ clubs for teams such as Spanish teams Barcelona and Real Madrid and English clubs such as Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal.
Week in and week out, supporters gather at unconventional hours to devote their total attention to games being played thousands of miles away. There are no side conversations, no email, no Facebook or Snapchat. They chant, curse, scream, cringe and drink – just as fans in the stadium do.
“I’ve gone to other cities, traveling and whatnot, and every bar has its kind of own community and family,” said Lynn Feldmann, 28, who is part of D.C.’s Chelsea supporters group, the Beltway Blues. “They all have their own little quirks, little leaders, little chants.”
Feldmann, a federal contractor, developed her affinity for soccer through her youth team coach Charlie Cooke, a former Chelsea and Scotland player in the 1960s and 1970s, who ran a soccer school in Ohio.
She doesn’t play anymore, but she rarely misses a game and being at Ireland’s Four Courts is almost non-negotiable. Only a major snow storm like the one in late January keeps her from the bar.
“I hated it so much,” Feldmann said. “It’s so much bigger than being at home. It’s easy to stay at home. It means you don’t have to shower … but it’s the community, it’s that atmosphere.”
Soccer’s popularity is growing in the United States. In May 2015, NBC Sports Group, which owns the media rights to the Premiere League, announced that viewership for last season rose 9 percent from the previous year’s already record-setting numbers. D.C. was the top market.
The growing support for soccer does trickle down to MLS. Although the 23-year-old American league is in its infant stage compared to its century-old European counterparts, some Americans’ love for soccer takes them to D.C. United’s RFK Stadium.
William Kennedy, 53, a D.C. English teacher, and life-long Tottenham supporter was among those crowding the Irish Channel at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Watching as his team battled arch rival Arsenal, he had also had a few beers by the final whistle.
He is a frequent supporter of D.C. United, even if that means sitting next to the enemy.
“The funny thing is you put aside the rivalries,” Kennedy said. “Some of my best friends at D.C. United are, God-forbid, they’re even Arsenal fans, Manchester and Chelsea fans.”
President of D.C.’s official Real Madrid supporters club Eduardo Ulloa, 31, a marketing director, is giving MLS a chance as it adds teams and brings European players such as Spaniard David Villa and Englishman Steven Gerrard.
“It’s not the same,” Ulloa said. “But I will go once in a while. We’ll never be as loyal, but it’s entertaining.”
It will take time for MLS to rival European leagues, in both tradition and level of play. But embracing the sport, as Americans seem to be doing, and investing in the league and its teams is also helpful.
The old, rundown stadium, too big for its supporters, doesn’t have the amenities that might attract more fans to D.C. United. The plans for a new stadium at Buzzard Point, which has yet to break ground or set an opening date, give fans optimism.
“I think when the new stadium opens in a couple of years, and it won’t be this 60-70,000-seat behemoth that is empty, and it’s going to be this 20,000-seat, very loud, very noisy, very raucous crowd, I think that’s going to do a lot,” Ryan Clarke, 28, a D.C. communications consultant, said.
In the meantime, Americans will continue to look across the sea from pub stools to the best leagues in the world, as they try to replicate the atmosphere at stadiums like Chelsea’s Samford Bridge.
“We can’t be at the Bridge every weekend, so we try to do what we can here,” Feldmann said.
Reach reporter Luis Gonzalez at [email protected] or 202-408-1493. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
Download photos: Soccer.zip