Getting Their Kicks

In increasing numbers, soccer fans are flocking to area sports bars to watch a game  of what the rest of the world knows as football

Somehow, it just didn’t seem right—a standing-room-only crowd in an English pub, and just about everybody in it was rooting against England.

Actually, the soccer fans who squeezed into Stoney’s British Pub on Concord Pike weren’t rooting against England as much as they were rooting for the other team, which, in this case, was the good ol’ USA.

It was a semi-final match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup last month that drew fans to Stoney’s and several other pubs and bars in the Wilmington area. And even though this was a special event because it was a World Cup match, it’s not unusual for Stoney’s and other places in the area to have big crowds for big matches. More and more fans are flocking to bars to see soccer, which is becoming a spectator sport and not just a participatory sport in this country.

Millions of American kids have played soccer over the years, many of them starting when they were four years old. But the most popular sport in the world never really caught on with the American public, and, more significantly, television viewers. Soccer fans had to get special cable stations or get up at 5 a.m. to watch a match on some obscure ESPN channel in order to get their fix.

Slowly but surely, that has changed as more and better options are available for watching soccer. And, like football or basketball or baseball fans, soccer lovers like to pop out to a bar that features their favorite sport on big-screen, high-definition TVs.

Stoney’s, on Route 202 in Brandywine Hundred, is one of them. The owner, Mike Stone, is English and grew up loving the sport that he and most of the world call football. It was natural for him to feature soccer matches at his pub, and word soon spread that Stoney’s was a place to go to watch games.

“Ever since I opened this place [in 2000] we’ve had good crowds for the football matches,” he says. “This was always a place they knew they could come to and see what they couldn’t see in other bars and pubs, and, more importantly, a place where they could see it with like-minded people. That’s really the key. And it’s just grown and gotten bigger every year.”

Carl Angstadt of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, was one of the 80 or so people crammed into Stoney’s for the England-USA match, but it wasn’t just the allure of a World Cup semi-final that brought him to another state to watch soccer—he’s here all the time.

“It’s the people,” says Angstadt, whose “Chelsea’’ jersey told the world which English Premier team is his favorite. “It used to be that just a few nuts like me would be in bars, searching for soccer and usually not finding much. To find a place like this and be in an atmosphere like this is just a lot of fun.” 

Women’s soccer fan Peter Borromeo, of Wilmington, cheers on the USA squad at Catherine Rooney’s. Photo by Butch Comegys

Atmosphere is also a big selling point for Ace Haney, owner and operator of Throwbacks Sports Lounge in Hockessin, and Haney says soccer is pulling in the paying customers like never before.

“I have 15 TVs and at least one always has soccer on,” he says. “And when the [women’s] World Cup is on, it draws more people than the Phillies. I’m very impressed with the passion and knowledge that these soccer fans have. They’re as serious about their sport as Eagles fans are, and that’s saying something.”

Robbie Wright, a 29-year-old from Wilmington, has also been a soccer junkie his entire life and he likes to go to The Greene Turtle in Brandywine Hundred to watch matches. He remembers when soccer wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now, and he credits the successes of the women’s World Cup team as the main reason more Americans are paying attention to a game that the rest of the planet has embraced for decades.

“The women’s team has made fans out of people who didn’t care about soccer before,” he says. “That’s a big key for the popularity of any sport. You can’t just have soccer players tuning in—you have to have the general sports fans, too. The women’s team has helped turn it into more of a mainstream sport in this country, and now people get together to watch games like they do for the NFL. And that makes the experience a lot more fun.”

Another hot spot is Catherine Rooney’s, the Irish pub in Trolley Square in Wilmington. In fact, the website BuzzFeed recently listed the bar as “The Best Place to Watch World Cup Soccer in Delaware.”

But, interestingly enough, the World Cup isn’t even the event that gets the most enthusiastic soccer response at Catherine Rooney’s. There is a rabid group of fans who religiously follow Liverpool, which finished second in the English Premier League last year to Manchester City and then won the Europe Champions League title. Those fanatics are gearing up for the new Premier League season, which starts on Aug. 9.

“They have a huge following here,” says Sara Sifford, a manager at Catherine Rooney’s. “We’re more of a soccer bar than anything else, and when Liverpool plays, the people really get into it.”

Sifford says all matches draw fans into her pub, including the women’s World Cup, the recent men’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and, yes, the made-in-America Major League Soccer and its local team, the Philadelphia Union. And she can always tell when a big match is on by the gear her customers are wearing and how early they arrive so they can get a good seat.

“Soccer has gotten more popular over the years, as far as people coming in to watch on television,” Sifford says. “And it’s mostly a younger vibe. They’re regular customers and they chant and they sing and they drink their Guinness. It’s a great atmosphere and it seems like it’s getting bigger all of the time.”

It’s not a surprise that ethnic bars and pubs draw soccer fans, since the sport is so popular in Europe and South America and is such a big part of those cultures. Among those bars is Rocco Italian Grill and Sports Bar on Union Street in Wilmington.

“We always get big crowds in here for soccer matches and you see a lot of the same people rooting for their favorite teams,” says Rocco Hostess Lauren Davis. “They’re like a football crowd— they’re loud and they yell at the televisions. They never get out of hand or cause trouble, but they do get excited. You can tell how much it means to them.”

You can also tell how much it means to soccer fans to have television viewing options they didn’t have in the not-too-distant past, and that doesn’t even include streaming devices and other media. Angstadt, sipping a beer at Stoney’s, says that has bonded soccer fans even more than they already were, especially the hard-core ones.

“It’s like a fraternity, because we all love soccer so much and I love the fact that I have places to go to watch it, and watch it with people who are almost as crazy as I am,” he says with a smile. “It’s a great feeling to know that when it comes to appreciating soccer for the great game that it is, America is finally catching up to the rest of the world.”

Catherine Rooney’s
1616 Delaware Ave., Wilmington
654-9700; catherinerooneys.com.

The Greene Turtle
307 Rocky Run Parkway, Wilmington;
510-6166; thegreeneturtle.com

Throwbacks Sports Lounge
721 Ace Memorial Dr., Hockessin
635-7459; facebook.com/throwbacksde/

Stoney’s English Pub
3007 Concord Pike, Wilmington
477-9740; stoneyspub.com

Rocco Italian Grill and Sports Bar
701 N. Union St., Wilmington
384-6052; roccoitaliangrill.com

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