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Sunday, June 13, 2010

First Shots Fired

First Shots Fired
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved

New York, NY – The Colonies vs. the Mother Country. The Stars and Stripes vs. the Union Jack. The Brits vs. The Yanks. Two countries divided by a common language.

Of what do I speak? The much-hyped, opening round Group C World Cup soccer match between England and the United States. The viewing spot? Johnny Utah’s at 51 W. 51st Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Event features? The game shown on two giant 15-foot HDTV screens. $3 Coors Light specials throughout game time. A mechanical bull (Manhattan’s first) in a circular padded pit. The Coors Light girls and their various hat, keychain and t-shirt giveaways plus a raffle to win an official soccer jersey. A Western-themed menu with dishes that include sandwiches like “The Buffalo Bill”, salads like the appropriately named “Red, White and Blue” and slow-cooked baby back ribs. The site had all the key elements for this brilliant showdown.

“Join Us At 2:30 For the World Cup Games” invited the colorful handwritten message scrawled on the poster board sign right outside the entry to this Big Apple anchor. Like miners, visitors step down a level through a shaft-like stairwell to emerge into a 6,000 sq. ft, comfortably furnished room. At one time a vault for an Italian bank, the space features a horseshoe-shaped bar to the left, the aforementioned giant screens straight ahead and various tables and seating enclaves throughout the room. At the center is the bull pit (the bully pulpit?!).

Right off the bat (the foot? the head?), the leggy Coors Light girls provided a big welcome, some refreshing pints and free headwear. Also shuffling in at that moment to create an immediate anchor were six youthful lads, obvious USA fans decked out in red, white and blue hats, flags and wristlets. They were a hearty bunch and ready for action, with a reserved table directly in front of one of the big screens.

There was truly a buzz in the air, as well there should be given the history of this classic match-up. For the first time since 1950 and only the second time in any World Cup, these two teams were facing each other. The last time they met, the U.S. recorded a 1-0 victory in a match played in Brazil, a game arguably considered one of soccer’s greatest upsets. The location of today’s game was Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa.

The action commenced after the playing of Britain’s national anthem “God Save the Queen” then our own “Star-Spangled Banner”. The latter received the louder cheers from the room given that a good three quarters of fans gathered here were behind the U.S.

No sooner had the first foot connected with the ball than England registered the first score. In fact, if you blinked, you missed the goal, which came only four minutes into the first half when England’s captain Steven Gerrard put one past U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. A group of England fans down in front of one screen erupted in cheers and fist pumps.

“Go back to England!” was the good-natured cry from a U.S. fan at the back of the room upon hearing these cheers.

In this subdued moment, the Coors Light girls pulled a winning raffle ticket and awarded the official U.S. jersey they had been touting. The receiver was Mike Malafronte, 22, from Oakdale, NY, who was onsite with girlfriend Amanda Mueller, 21, from Dix Hills, NY. The latter had a U.S. flag imprinted on her cheek. Asked how they happened to be at Johnny Utah’s, Mike said, “We heard about the 15-foot screens, the bull and no cover… and this is close to where our friends live. All my friends are at the bar.” Amanda added, “And my cousin and her friends are here, too!” nodding toward a table of nine along the back wall, from which the “Go back to England” shout had emanated.

On the field of battle, America’s men in blue and all the Queen’s men in white resumed their fierce fight, driving the ball up and down, accompanied by a constant drone of horns and shouts from rabid fans. A shot, a miss, another shot, a miss. An English player’s foot rammed into Howard’s chest. (Howard would ultimately be responsible for six saves)

The crowd here mirrored the fan excitement at the stadium, with irreverent cries and taunts, claps, yells, “USA” anthems and other related jeers and cheers.

Johnny Utah’s Event Director Cheryl Goff, fresh from a conference call and running around with a mobile device, made an appearance. She had expected a good midtown crowd hungry for some mid-afternoon entertainment. Her hopes were realized as more and more people flowed into the space and took up any and all available seats.

In the 40th minute of the game, Team USA leveled the playing field with a shot punted in by Clint Dempsey, making him only the second American ever to score in two World Cups, joining Brian McBride. The shot actually bounced off U.K. goalkeeper Robert Green and rolled into the net behind him.

“That was a sh** goal!” commented Alex, the restaurant’s tech director and mechanical bull operator. Though not impressed by Team USA’s performance, he was impressed by the size of the crowd. We agreed that the team match-up was the draw. We also agreed that, while the last goal was a cheapie, “It’s not how you get there, just that you get there.”

The aforementioned table of nine at the back of the room didn’t have a problem with the goal and were glad America had been able to tie the sides. The group hailed from Chicago, IL; White Plains, NY; Philadelphia, PA; New Jersey; and Manhattan. “We’re all American and that’s what matters!” said the group’s most boisterous member, Spenser Shumaker, 22, representing from Philly. “We’re the greatest nation in the world!” added the outspoken USA fan.

Upon closer investigation, I learned that half the group had studied abroad in Galway, Ireland, while the other half went to Penn State. It was group member Drew Batton, 23, from Manhattan that pulled them all back together for this event. “I researched game sites… Johnny Utah’s seemed very American.” Shumaker weighed in again to add, “I like the big screens, loud people and the mechanical bull!”

With the sides tied 1-1 at the half and calm reigning for the moment, I went and visited with the initial group of “youthful lads” that I had encountered upon first arriving. They had been joined by five beautiful ladies from Miami, who had apparently flown in on a private jet provided by one of the ladies, Sophia Alvarez. The ladies, with the exception of one from Israel, were all Hispanic, representing Panama, Columbia, Venezuela and Portugal. At the same token, the guys were all New Yorkers, with the exception of one guy from Miami. Perhaps the funniest part was that the ladies were all U.K. fans while the guys were all USA fans – a true Battle of the Sexes taking place!

How did they all know one another? “We’ve all had sex with each other!” said the most outspoken member of the group, though all were over the top, having lots of fun, with testosterone and estrogen levels pushed to max settings.

I checked back in with Spenser from Philly to get his perspective on the game thus far. “Are we going to make it through this?” I asked him, with reference to Team USA. “We’ll be fine, we’ll make it through,” he said, the flag tattoo on his cheek and Uncle Sam hat on his headed glinting under a pinspot.

When Nature calls, as it often does (particularly when the Coors Lights are coming fast and furious), Johnny Utah’s provides a facility called the Outhouse – communal, wood-walled stalls. On the way, you can eyeball a secluded space called The Vault, which is a private party room accommodating 12-20 people at a banquet table with a chandelier above it. At the far end of this room, portraits hang of the provocative Josephine Sarah Marcus, second wife of Wyatt Earp, and Jean McCormick, claiming to be Calamity Jane’s daughter. Safety deposit boxes line each wall. “People leave notes in here,” said tech director Alex.

The earlier referenced group of U.K. fans, numbering 10 – I should say 10 in the group, but nine U.K. fans and one USA fan – Katie, 24, from New York. “We all work together (except Katie) in Stamford [CT] for GE (IT and Finance). We came down for the match… and the bull,” said Imran, 27, a big lad born and bred in Manchester, England. “He’s going to break the bull!” piped in co-worker June, 26. Here, again, was a group international in composition with representation from the U.K., Mexico, Italy, Poland, Korea, Guatemala and Hungary. The broad spectrum of countries begged the question, ‘Why the U.K.?’  “European origins,” was the best that Imran could suggest.

From the back of the room, from Spenser’s group, a chant arose, “USA! USA! USA! USA!” There was a great rivalry here, but it was clear there was U.S. favoritism. Even the towelettes (moist wipes) had American flag designs on the exterior!

The second half had commenced, time was now rapidly ticking down, the U.K. was pouring on the offense and fans from both sides were getting antsy. The cries of “USA! USA!” grew more pleading, feverish. All heads were turned toward the big screens, with fans anticipating, hoping, and crossing themselves. The crowd in the arena was in the same state: clutching themselves, hoping that their respective team would hang in there.

Ultimately, the score would hold at 1-1 and a polite, almost anti-climactic, clap from the crowd here was heard. It was a sober, not triumphant, finish, though hopeful, too, in that both teams would advance to a second round.

“I’m not happy, just content. The beginning was sloppy, and the second half was flat,” summed up Spenser. “But I think we showed we can hang. America is here to stay, that’s what I’m saying,” he added.

“Both [teams] were equally mediocre. It was like a purgatory game. It wasn’t good or bad. I wanted the U.K. to kick,” said jet-setter Sophia, representing the opposite perspective.

So, to sum up in lands-across-the-pond terms, the sides met, scurried around behind bushes, fired a couple shots at each other and, mission accomplished for now, went and got some grog. “Fair play!” as the Brits might say. We’ll meet another day.

Johnny Utah’s will show all 2pm games for the World Cup. For group bookings, email or call 212-265-8824. For all upcoming events, visit