On the watch for World Cup watch parties

06/25/2010 1:44 AM

06/25/2010 5:22 PM

GOOOAAA ... home?

The U.S. men's soccer team is through to the World Cup's round of 16, but it appears its growing fanbase will be locked out of many of Merced County's eateries and bars.

Home-field -- your couch, your TV, your chips and drinks -- might, in fact, be your only advantage when it comes to watching Landon Donovan, Tim Howard and America's underdog soccer team.

Billed as a defining victory, a defining moment in domestic soccer, the Americans captured Group C on Wednesday with a thrilling 1-0 victory over Algeria.

It was a storybook finish, the kind that moved some to tears. And Donovan, the face of American soccer, played the role of knight in shining armor well, pounding a rebound into the side net during stoppage time.

Now comes Ghana, the Group D runnerup, and the Knockout Stages.

The game highlights a banner weekend of soccer for North American fans, particularly the Mexican-American sector here in the Central Valley: U.S.-Ghana on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and Mexico-Argentina in the must-see matchup Sunday afternoon at 11:30.

Where will you be?

If you live in Merced, chances are you'll probably be at home.

There aren't many on-the-town alternatives.

World Cup watch parties seem to be all the rage across the Central Valley, except here in Merced where many restaurants and bars won't open until after the matches have begun or cater to soccer-specific audiences.

In Modesto on Wednesday, P. Wexford's Pub had its foundation rocked by a bar full of dancing, screaming, reveling U.S. fans. A hundred, in all.

Wexford's has changed its operating hours to carry every World Cup game, enticing fans with a "breakfast and brew" slogan.

Further north, in Manteca, Tommy's Bar and Grill will open its doors early on Saturday to accomodate an American fanbase that cheered -- and spent -- freely during the homeside's 1-1 draw with England.

Here, there appear to be fewer options to coax you off the couch:

J&R Tacos has been World Cup central for patrons in downtown Merced.

As many as 30 fans -- standing-room only for a restaurant of its size -- watched Mexico's 2-0 victory over France on two flat-screen TVs. A handful more took in the game from outside, peering through the window fronts.

J&R co-owner Janna Rodriguez used a new medium to spread World Cup fever to the public: Facebook.

"We've got 600 fans on our Facebook page and a lot of them are students at the UC or Merced College. They come from all over the world," said Rodriguez, who will open her doors at 11 a.m. on Saturday. "The UC community is really diverse. We got people who support France, Argentina, Mexico and the U.S. It's funny. You'll see all these nationalities sitting at the tables, wearing different color shirts. We enjoy having them."

The Branding Iron Restaurant manager Justin Parle invites late-risers to watch week-day Cup games from their lounge, which features a big screen and two smaller flat-screens.

However, the restaurant, which doesn't open until noon on weekdays and 5 p.m. on weekends, won't make special accomodations for the World Cup -- not on such short notice.

Parle said his lounge usually caters to baseball fans. And though he's been following the World Cup, recent trends haven't indicated a watch party would be a boon for business.

Not his, anyway.

"We haven't discussed it. Haven't even thought about it really," he said. "I'm paying close attention, but most people I know, most of our patrons, they'll still want baseball on in the bar."

"But we'll cater those that walk in," he added. "If we get enough people in here that want to watch it, it's absolutely doable."

Out of Bounds owner Miguel Duran is just glad England survived. Fans of the Three Lions have frequented the Atwater sports bar since the start of the World Cup, leaving quite an impression on Duran.

Out of Bounds will be open at 11 a.m. on Saturday and will offer a drink special on domestic draft beers.

"It's been a little U.S., a little England and a little Mexico," he said. "England fans, they're here so early. That was a good group and they said they'll be back."

The small number of watch parties appear to be part of a national epidemic: despite its recent strides, soccer still ranks low on the totem pole.

When asked if Cup fandom compares to the NBA Finals, O'Ryleigh's Tavern manager Steve Souza scoffed.

"They're actually less rowdy than NBA Finals fans," he said. "Those Laker fans get pretty crazy."

The unpredictability of signature matchups, like Mexico-Argentina, and pace of the tournament have left many interested managers and owners handcuffed.

They have little time to prepare and advertise for a soccer-specific event, especially when many of the matches kick off before opening time.

Said Parle, offering, intentionally or not, a little American perspective: "It would have to be something pretty special."

Souza didn't leave anything to chance.

He spent Thursday afternoon tinkering with his staffing, squeezing vendors for banners and decorations and dreaming up drink specials.

O'Ryleigh's will open with kickoff on Saturday.

"The U.S. is doing pretty good. I don't know a whole lot about soccer, but I know they weren't expecting us to do this well," he said. "That fact alone means people are getting into it.

"Hopefully, it's good for business, too."

James Burns is managing editor/sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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