World Cup in Grand Rapids: Soccer fans fill park, root for USA

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — In a standing-room only setting in parts of Ah-Nab-Awen Park, Julien Nadeau and Chris Cottle had a bit of luxury, setting up hammocks to watch the U.S. men’s national soccer team in the World Cup Round of 16 on Tuesday.

“I told Chris that we’ve got two hours, two hammocks, so let’s get down there and lounge,” said Nadeau, who heard about the Grand Rapids watch party on Facebook.

The men were surrounded by about 1,000 others as soccer fans filled the park for the afternoon 2-1 loss to Belgium.

The crowd erupted after the Julian Green scored in the second extra time to bring the Americans within one. With six minutes to go, the anticipation grew as the U.S. looked for the equalizer, narrowly missing on several shots on Belgian goalie Thibaut Courtois, with a other scoring opportunities cleared before they could test the young keeper.

Matt Post, a 26-year-old who has been front-and-center for the men’s World Cup at the SpeakEZ Lounge, found his spot just right of the stage.

“The park is not all crazy all at once like (the SpeakEZ),” Post said. “It’s been an amazing turnout. It was cool to experience something new, especially with a lot of other big cities around the U.S. doing similar things.”

A missed opportunity for a potential game-winning goal in the 92nd minute nearly sent the fans into a frenzy, but left many with hands on their heads.

Bouts of USA chants entered and exited from the front section that stood 10-deep the entire match. Goalie Tim Howard kept hopes alive with 16 saves, each eliciting a round of applause and sighs of relief.

According to SpeakEZ Lounge general manger Calin Skidmore, who stayed behind to run the restaurant while owner Eric Albertson went to the viewing, about half of the crowd that stayed was replaced by a whole host of new fans.

The wind picked up and the skies became overcast around 5:15, giving fans much-needed relief from the heat and humidity. It was standing room only at the tree line, with some taking more advantage of the sparse seating than others.

Sarah Baar, 29, and her husband Scott, 30, also found a spot near the top of the hill with their toddler. Sarah enjoyed the sense of community while Scott was glad the weather cooperated.

Rico Vazquez, 39, brought his whole family to the park a few weeks ago for a movie night and brought them again for the viewing party.

“We’re usually at home to watch (the games), but this was something different,” Vazquez said. “I like the environment and there’s no Wi-Fi that distracts the kids.”

Jon Rzepecki is a writer for MLive/The Grand Rapids Press. Email him at jrzepcki@mlive.com, and follow him on Twitter.

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