U.S. cheering section brings it to Brazil

Local American Outlaws chapters gather to watch U.S. soccer at bars -- and at stadiums. The group's leaders have organized a trip to the World Cup in Brazil. Bill Shettle/Icon SMI

When the United States takes on Ghana in its World Cup opener Monday night, you can bet all 18,000 members of the American Outlaws will be watching. SoCal members of this unofficial rooting club for U.S. soccer will gather at Q's Billiard Club in Santa Monica, California, while Smoke & Barrel will host AO members in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Outlaws in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, will meet at Jerseys Downtown, while the Wilmington, North Carolina chapter will watch at Courts & Sports.

Over the next month 125 official American Outlaws bars across the country will host watch parties as the U.S. men's national team tries to survive the Group of Death and make an improbable run at the Cup.

American Outlaws co-founders Justin Brunken and Korey Donahoo won't be at their regular chapter bar, Captain Jack's in Lincoln, Nebraska. They'll be with 530 other Outlaws watching the World Cup in person.

They were set to travel to Brazil on Friday in two chartered planes, each packed with more than 250 American Outlaws members. Donahoo, Brunken and his wife, Megan, who acts as the AO's secretary-treasurer, put together the ultimate trip for the American soccer fan, right down to the parties, the buses that will take them to the USA-Portugal game in Recife and the chartered plane that will drop them off in Manaus for USA-Germany.

"Pretty much the only way to get to Manaus is by plane," Megan Brunken said. "It's basically in the middle of the Amazon, which made it really tough to plan, but we made it happen."

Said Justin Brunken: "The members are coming from all over so we told them as long as they got to Houston we'd take care of the rest. We organized hotels, transportation between games and tickets and everything. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for fans to get to the games."

Helping American soccer fans support their team has been the mission of the American Outlaws since its inception. It started in 2007 with a 55-person bus trip from Lincoln to the U.S.-Brazil game in Chicago and now they're chartering planes to Brazil, starring in ESPN commercials and helping 18,000 members set up watch parties all across the country.

"It's all kind of exploded," Justin Brunken said. "It's kind of crazy how big it's gotten. When we started we realized a lot of people were looking for something like this. They were trying to organize with friends and find a bar to watch at, but one time the local bar would have the sound on and the next time they'd say, 'Well, the football game takes priority.'"

The Outlaws' name came from feeling a bit like outliers, fans of a sport that didn't have the support of the NBA or the NFL. Brunken and Donahoo hoped to help fellow soccer fans find each other.

"Our mission was to unite and strengthen," Brunken said. "We really wanted to find ways to bring people together and get fans all across the country to each game. One of our goals was to be consistent and try to do it for every single game, no matter the significance."

Running the Outlaws has always been a side project, so Donahoo and the Brunkens never expected to be able to attend every USMNT game.

"That's one of the great things about having chapters," Brunken said. "From the beginning they were super helpful moving the Outlaws forward and helping organize in their cities if we weren't able to make it. We also knew that, coming from Lincoln, we didn't know what soccer culture was like in say Miami or Kansas City, so we allowed fans there to pick the bar they wanted to go to and kind of lead the way."

With each game they attended, the Outlaws earned more fans and members.

"When we'd do our pregame tailgates and when we were in the stands, people would be walking around like 'What's going on here?'" Brunken said. "'What's this big group here? What are you guys doing? This looks awesome.'"

The Outlaws also use social media to earn new members and keep current members up to date on events, chapter news and game chants and cheers. For $25 a year, members get the American Outlaws supporter T-shirt, one of the group's American flag bandanas and discounts on game tickets, flights and rental cars.

"If you see someone wearing the official shirt you know they're a member and they're part of the AO family," Justin Brunken said. "It's kind of cool to see people at the airport be like 'American Outlaws? Where are you from? What chapter are you with?' That's the coolest thing to see, people becoming friends just because of the shirt."

"I don't know how else to explain it other than like a family," Megan Brunken said. "The network of people that you're joining is a huge benefit. You're part of a big family and anywhere you go in the U.S. you'll have people to watch the game with and somewhere to watch it."

And when the World Cup comes around, the Outlaws family goes international. The group's exploits will be shared via photos, stories and daily videos on AOInBrazil.com.

They're only scheduled to stay in Brazil for the group stage, but Brunken says if the U.S. team manages to advance, he and Megan will have a tough time coming home.

"Two weeks was pretty much all the vacation we had," he said. "But if we make it to the semifinals, I can't imagine missing that."