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Sioux Falls is Finally Believing in Soccer

“USA, USA, USA!”

“I believe that we will win!”

If you make it work, long distance relationships can thrive.  Sioux Falls, South Dakota is 3,942 miles away from Brazil, and soccer fans in the region are cheering wildly for their home country at the Gateway Bar and Lounge (off of 41st Street, and on Gateway Boulevard on the West side of Sioux Falls).  And it’s working. Diehards, casual fans, and patriotic Americans show up to the local bar wearing their Red, White and Blue proudly.  Not a seat is open, and every television is on the game. There’s oohs, and aahs.  Cheers, and groans.  Every eye of every fan is on all the screens in the bar.  Fans bite their fingernails, sit on the edge of their seats, and stand on their tip toes as they patiently wait for the United States to score.

“I’ve never seen a group of people five minutes into (Sunday’s) game where Portugal scored, and I mean the place, there was nothing.  It was sickening.  All of sudden, you can see USA build, and everyone starting chanting.  Then, they got that goal (by Jermaine Jones) and the place just erupts,” expresses Jackson Rentschler, Vice President of Sioux Falls chapter of the American Outlaws. ”People call it like a sonic boom in here and you don’t find it in a Super Bowl or anything.”

The Outlaws began in 2007 in Lincoln, Nebraska, and later in Sioux Falls in 2009 (became an official chapter in 2010).  The group is a U.S. men’s national team supporters’ group.  They watch and attend games together all around the country.  In Sioux Falls, the Outlaws were nomads for the longest time, calling bars to turn on televisions to watch soccer.  Bars didn’t seem to care, though.  Soccer fans could only watch games in the corner with no sound on.  Then, a few members heard of this place called the Gateway Bar and Lounge.  Clint Krahn, President of the Sioux Falls chapter, reached out to an older gentlemen who ran the bar.  The Gateway intially thought Krahn was making a sales pitch, and wasn’t interested at the time.  So, the Outlaws moved on, but Rentschler, one of the bar’s managers (his grandfather owns the bar), got wind of the bar saying no to the Outlaws.  He knew he had to help find a way for the organization find a permanent home at the Gateway.  Things worked out. Krahn didn’t have to sit at home on the couch or on bar stools by himself anymore.  The Gateway was officially the home of the American Outlaws in Sioux Falls.  Today, the group is growing like crazy; began with 25 members, and now has 150-plus members.  Soccer fans come from towns around the area like Sioux City (Iowa), Chamberlain (SD), and Yankton (SD).

“You know, I don’t think there’s any better sport to watch with a group of people in a bar. You get this many people, (you were here), there was not a seat and not many places to stand up. Everyone was on the edge of their seat waiting on every little second with the drama, emotion, and the roller coaster in there.  You’re so low and so high, and unfortunately we had a low ending, but it was awesome,” Krahn excitedly tells.

“It’s so neat.  My friend Dustin, who is no longer is Sioux Falls, but is one of the main guys who came with me four years ago, and he was texting me, ‘your pictures, and videos, holy cow!’  We went from 15 people to I don’t even know – we lost count to capacity of the bar crowd.  There wasn’t even a table out here. It was everywhere,” Rentschler joyfully speaks.

Soccer is picking up steam.  More television stations are carrying games (NBC Sports shows English Premier games),  television ratings are soaring (USA-Portugal received a 9.1 overnight rating, highest for a World Cup game ever), social media is buzzing (20 million Facebook interactions, and eight million Tweets were sent during Sunday’s match), and the fan experience is unlike any other sport to watch.

“My dad did not like soccer, never had.  After that first game (against Ghana), we gave him a jersey, and he called me the next day and said, ‘can I keep this?’  He was asking about times when you have your Vikings versus Bears, and it’s fun and a good crowd, but everyone is diverse.  Half and half.  With this (soccer), it’s 99.9% of people who are here cheering for one team and there is nothing else like it!” says Rentschler.

Even the non-typical soccer fans are enjoying watching the World Cup, and cannot wait for more games when matches are over.

“The old regulars, the old Southerners who are NASCAR or football fans who give me crap week in and week out.  The last couple of weeks, its like what is offsides?  So, they play at 11 a.m. or 12 p.m.?  It’s been neat to see everyone, and it’s not just soccer fans, everyone is coming out,” adds Rentschler.

In fact, going to soccer matches in person is a lot more fun than watching from the bar or at home.

“We convinced him (a fellow bartender), and drug him down to Kansas City for a Jamaica-U.S. World Cup qualifier.  He’s been to a Chiefs game, college basketball games, and goes, ‘this is the greatest sporting event I’ve gone to.’  He was quiet and stuff for the first five minutes and then all of a sudden, he was jumping around,” explains Rentschler.

The Outlaws are just one many groups in Sioux Falls that are ready for soccer to burst onto the scene with the four other major sports in the United States.  For youth soccer players in the area, Dakota Alliance has merged all the soccer organizations under one umbrella (Sioux Falls Soccer Organization, Great Plains Soccer, and Dakota Gold) to allow soccer players to play recreationally, and competitively.  The merger is in its sixth year, and 3,900 kids play soccer in a season, and roughly 7,000 kids play over the course of a year.  Dakota Alliance has three tiers of participation for these boys and girls.  The first tier begins with youth development, where kids can learn the skills of the sport.  The second tier is the largest, and is the recreational based part of Dakota Alliance’s program.  The third tier is a competitive program.  A lot of kids that are playing soccer today are receiving the best resources with top-level coaching, and player development through Dakota Alliance.

“We are a not a win at all cost sort of organization.  We like to focus on development, primarily based on the U.S. soccer philosophy with the proper age for what they are doing in a practice .  For example, a coach who maybe coaches a U-11, is focusing on the technical side of the game versus a coach at the U-18 level who focuses more on the tactical side of game.  We really are specific with the age of players and what we are teaching in practice that is going to in the long run make them better soccer players,” says Dale Weiler, Competitive Director at Dakota Alliance.

This is a step up from when Rentschler played youth soccer when many coached the sport because their kid(s) played.  The rise in training on the field has also led to more facilities being built.  When Dakota Alliance merged all the soccer organizations in Sioux Falls, it allowed them to partner with the Sanford Fieldhouse (North of the Sioux Falls airport) to give players a place to play indoors during the winter months.

Like any sport though, soccer has its downsides.  Club soccer usually requires athletes to pay to play, which is often a determining factor for many families.

“Up until this time, it was seen as a club sport and a pay to play sport because anybody that participated in it had to pay for their participation.  That definitely limited a population that would not be able to take part because of the financial burden it would place upon that family,” tells Frank Gurnick, Director of Coaching at Dakota Alliance.

Dakota Alliance and local booster clubs did help with some offsetting costs for players that wanted to play soccer for their school as a club sport.

So, in an effort to gain more interest in the sport in South Dakota, the state recently sanctioned soccer as a high school sport (starting in the Fall of 2014).  Now, the biggest question remains: how does South Dakota try to sell soccer?

“In a community the size of Sioux Falls, we often ask ourselves, is there a limit to which we will see a plateau?  For example, most of the kids are multiple sport athletes.  They play football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, hockey, and there’s now an introduction to lacrosse.  All these sports are trying to get their hooks into the kids, and I don’t know what that threshold is with regards to maximal participation, but I think we are getting pretty close to it with the number of kids participating,” says Gurnick.

In the United States, soccer is one of many sports played by kids growing up.  Wheras around the world, soccer is a cultural game.  To keep the game growing in the States, and in South Dakota, Gurnik thinks he’s recognized what soccer needs to do to attract everyone.

“Make it affordable, available for everybody, and make it clear if a kid wants to take part, we are going to find a way to give them an opportunity to play.”

The American Outlaws have problems like local soccer organizations do.  The group is constantly trying to find ways to hook the casual soccer fan.

“One of our big challenges is obviously we have a ton of people who show up for the World Cup, and the excitement is here, but we have to try to keep them coming back. Keep them involved on the social media aspect, for the next match, and get them coming back for excitement and fun and everything in between,” says Krahn.

Positive thinking is music to the ears of soccer fans because their sport is gaining popularity.  If you take time to sit down and watch the game, you might see why It’s a beautiful sport because it makes players become better decision makers.

“They (soccer players) have to make their own decisions.  That’s why soccer is such a great program.  It enhances the players creativity because they face such different situations every single second of the game.  They have to figure it out and understand it on their own,” explains Daniel Ohayon, Associate Coordinator of Dakota Alliance.

Opportunities are expanding to play and watch soccer in the area through Dakota Alliance, high school sanctioned soccer, the American Outlaws, and even co-ed soccer leagues.  There’s Major League Soccer teams within driving distance (Sporting Kansas City, and Minneapolis is pushing to add a MLS team).  Plus, soccer is a game that youth, and adults can play.  Gurnik is 50-years old, and he still plays.

“It’s a game where, quite honestly, the minute you can kick a ball until the time you can’t kick a ball, it’s a lifetime sport.  For example, football definitely has a time frame that you can play.  There’s not a lot of football out there for adults unless it’s flag football or touch football after Thanksgiving dinner.”

The United States lost 1-0 to Germany today, but still managed to advance to the round of 16 as Portugal beat Ghana, 2-1.  So, it’s not too late to jump on the soccer bandwagon.

“We’re starting to drag the casual fan in, or get a friend or family member that comes down and watches the game.  Once you are there and you see how exciting and how much it sucks you in, you’re in.  We have a lot of members that have never played a game of organized soccer in their life.  They come and see it and go to a match and say, ‘Yeah, I’m in.100%, I’m in,” adds Krahn.

The U.S. men’s team is creating a lot of believers, and perhaps the beautiful game can stick around for good around the States.  After all, It finally seems like America is rooting for soccer.

*For comments, and story ideas, email Sam at tastadsam@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @samtastad.

Photo via Sam Tastad/ESPN 99.1

 

 

 

 

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