USA erupts in soccer craze

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OBAMA-WATCHLOS ANGELES, June 26- US football fans erupted in celebration across the country Thursday as their team reached the next round of the World Cup, fueling a surge of popularity for a sport struggling to gain a foothold.

Crowds gathered in bars, pubs and in front of open-air big screens nationwide to watch Team USA battle Germany — a losing effort for the Americans, but enough to move on in the tournament in Brazil.

Football mania even appeared to hit Wall Street, where trading volumes were down about 10 percent during the game, which started at noon on the US East Coast — the perfect excuse for long lunch breaks.

In Los Angeles, it was beer for breakfast at the German-themed Red Lion pub, where fans from the two countries gathered for the match, which sent both nations through to the final 16.

“It’s pretty impressive, given that we’re not a soccer country at all,” Zach Fuhr, 23, told AFP, clutching a liter glass of beer in the packed beer garden of the pub, in LA’s hipster Silver Lake neighborhood.

“We’ve already exceeded expectations… considering that we were in the group of death,” he added, referring to the group which also contained Portugal and Ghana.

Germany’s Thomas Mueller scored to give the European heavyweights a 1-0 win over the US team.

But Team USA went through to the knockout round anyway, after Portugal’s 2-1 victory over Ghana was not enough for them to overtake the Americans in second place in Group G.

TV audience data was not immediately available, but the previous Team USA match against Portugal on Sunday evening drew nearly 25 million viewers — more than the NBA finals or baseball’s World Series, mainstays of the US sporting landscape.

It is the fourth time Team USA has got past the group stage at the World Cup. Their best ever performance was getting into the quarter-finals in 2002. It was not immediately clear who they will play next, although Belgium is a possibility.

– Parties across the nation –

Fans celebrated at a variety of venues. Outside parties were staged in Washington, on Hermosa Beach outside Los Angeles and in Chicago’s Grant Park.

In New York, fans poured into pubs and delis to watch the lunchtime match, with standing room only and a queue down the block to get into one German beer house in midtown Manhattan.

Delis nixed TV screen menus in favor of the match so that hungry New Yorkers wouldn’t miss the action as they lined up for salads and sandwiches.

Clutching liters of beer, crowds of smartly-dressed office workers — along with the occasional German fan — whooped and booed with every twist to the drama on the pitch.

On nearby Wall Street, trading in all equity markets for the two hours the match was on were down about 10 percent compared to recent June trading, an official with a leading exchange told AFP.

In Washington, several thousand people crammed into Dupont Circle, using steps of the white marble fountain in the middle of the park as bleachers to get a better view of the action, on two big screens.

“My boss said it’s fine to take a long lunch,” said Sam Black, who works a few blocks away, sitting with friends on the grass and sporting a US jersey. “I watch at least a game a day,” he added.

Finance worker John Lou, 26, said he called in sick to watch the game. “My boss said ‘well played’,” he said, as the crowd chanted “USA! USA!” around him.

Opinion is divided over whether the surge of World Cup excitement will lead to a longer-term boost in popularity of football in America.

Blogger Matt Verderame of the SB Nation website is skeptical — but says the lower expectations for the US team can help them in some way.

“Americans are used to being the big bully on the block athletically, and the World Cup offers a different feel. It’s nice to be the underdog, pulling for a tough team with nothing to lose,” he told AFP.

Back in Los Angeles, German-born Tony Tomik, 24, raised an ornate German ale mug at the TV screen set up in the Red Lion beer garden.

“We’re the best right now,” he told AFP.

“The only reason I like America is because of (German US coach) Jurgen Klinsmann. He’s one of my idols. The reason they’re playing good is because he taught the German team before.”

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