U.S. World Cup team grips Fresno fans to bitter end (video)

The Fresno BeeJuly 1, 2014 

The U.S. soccer team's World Cup run ended in a 2-1 loss Tuesday to Belgium, but the Americans once again showed why a country fell in love with them.

Not just for scrappy play and hard-headed coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but also because Team USA mirrored the people it played its heart out for.

The team is dominated by first- and second-generation Americans.

Striker Jozy Altidore is the son of Haitian immigrants. goalkeeper Tim Howard has a black father and a Hungarian mother. Defender Omar Gonzalez has Mexican parents who raised him in Texas.

The list goes on, just as it would at any of the watch parties that sprang up around America for four U.S. matches.

Take the one at Samba Global Cuisine in Fresno's Fig Garden Village, for instance, where an international cast lined up early and (mostly) stayed to the bitter end to cheer on the Americans. There were fans like Eduardo Ruiz, a Guarantee Real Estate agent who was born in Mexico City; Jose Elgorriaga, the son of the late Fresno State soccer coach, of Spanish and Basque descent; Gabon-born restaurant waiter Boris Ovakalaga; and restaurant owner Jay Ghazal of Lebanon, all on the same side Tuesday -- rooting for the Stars and Stripes.

"It's an incredible atmosphere and everyone's having fun," Ovakalaga said. "They don't call it 'the beautiful game' for nothing."

Nearly 200 people, many wearing some variation of red, white and blue, crammed into Samba . Sure, it was a work day. But there were exceptions to be made because the U.S. was playing in an elimination match that started at 1 p.m.

"This is work," said Elgorriaga, general manager of the local Univision affiliate.

Elgorriaga said that all of his staff was watching the U.S. game somewhere, whether at the station or another restaurant.

Ruiz, the real estate agent, arrived an hour early to save seats for his coworkers. He walked from his office across the parking lot, stopping by his car on the way to put on a red-and-white striped USA jersey over his business clothes.

"We're super-excited for this match," said Ruiz, 40. "We just want the U.S. to win."

Mortgage broker Jimmy Pingham, 46, and business owner Jose Huerta, 44, took the day off from work to watch the match over some beers at Samba.

Fans Jeff Rios, 28, and Corey Perales, 22, arrived 45 minutes before kickoff and snatched up the final two seats at the bar.

"This is it right here," Perales said. "It's do or die."

Fans experienced the highs and lows of soccer, oohing when the United States was spared by one of Tim Howard's magnificent saves and aahing after each missed goal-scoring opportunity.

They chanted "USA! USA!" as Ghazal banged a metal drum under his arm while weaving through the crowd. Fan Walid Tayar, 36, of Clovis, added to the noise with his vuvuzela -- the noisemaker in vogue during the last World Cup, in South Africa.

They kept it up for the full 90-plus minutes of regulation. The game headed into two 15-minute halves of extra time and fans at Samba were thankful it was 0-0.

"Tim Howard is doing an incredible job. He's the one keeping us in this game," Huerta said. "It's scary to think of this game going into penalties. All we need to do is get lucky."

It got scarier to think of overcoming the 2-0 lead that Belgium mounted in the first 15 minutes of extra time.

"Well, there's always four years from now," said Pingham.

But that luck that Huerta was talking about finally found the United States.

Julian Green, a 19-year-old substitute, reignited the Americans on a goal in the 107th minute. (Green, by the way, represented the diversity so evident in Samba -- born in Florida to an American military man and his German bride, raised in Germany but playing for his native country.)

Fans leaped out of their seats, hands held high, screaming, exchanging high-fives and hugs as hopes for a late comeback sizzled.

Chants of what had become the U.S. fight song, "I believe that we will win," filled the restaurant.

But each opportunity that followed for the United States fizzled. For every missed shot, faulty pass and lost possession, fans groaned louder.

In the 114th minute, U.S. star Clint Dempsey's 6-yard shot was blocked by Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

"Holy cow!" said Huerta. "That would've been amazing!"

Fans held out hope, some restlessly rocking back and forth, others with hands clenched above their heads, even as they watched the final seconds tick away.

"It's heartbreaking," said Erick Motta, 40, president and broker at Home Star Real Estate in Fresno. "It was too intense. Absolutely nerve-racking."

For 15-year-old Sean Lyons, the defeat was bitter.

"We should've won that game," he said. "We had plenty of chances. Our team didn't deserve to lose. They played their hearts out."

Hanging along Samba's walls are flags from all 32 of this year's World Cup countries. At 1 p.m. Tuesday, 23 of them were rolled up, representing elimination from the tournament. The 24th was rolled up as the last of the faithful trickled out.

Nonetheless, fans enjoyed the Americans' run in Brazil that exceeded expectations with a second place in the World Cup's "Group of Death," beating out Portugal and Ghana for a spot in the knockout round.

"We've come a long way on the international stage," said Motta, who saw the United States play in the 1998 World Cup in France where they lost every game in the group stage and were the first team eliminated.

"We're pushing the world's top teams to the limit, and that's saying something."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6401, amoreno@fresnobee.com or or @anhelllll on Twitter.

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