LAKEWOOD RANCH -- They came in droves, clad in gear showing American pride.
From jerseys to top hats and bandanas, and everything else in between, the standing room only crowd at Ed's Tavern in Lakewood Ranch gave Tuesday's second-round FIFA World Cup match between the United States and Belgium an electric atmosphere.
And although the fans who flocked to East Manatee were treated to the same disappointment as those at watch parties around the country and abroad following Belgium's 2-1 victory in extra time that eliminated the Stars and Stripes from this World Cup, the burgeoning popularity of soccer is at an all-time high.
That movement was evidenced at various area locales showing the match -- an uncommon idea years ago.
Torrey Spears, a Myakka City resident, was decked out in American garb and superstitiously wore the same socks he had on in the first U.S. match to support America's bid to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002.
Spears said he's a casual fan and will watch when soccer is on but most likely will stick to following during World Cup cycles.
"I don't think the World Cup was a disappointment by any stretch," Spears said. "The fact that they got out of that group when nobody said that they would, I think that's a good thing."
ESPN coverage showed large viewing parties from Arlington, Texas, to Seattle, Kansas City and even military members gathering in Afghanistan.
At the local level, places such as Buffalo Wild Wings on University Parkway drew several large crowds throughout the World Cup and even has a poster with an updated bracket for fans to follow.
Downtown Bradenton locales, includ
ing McCabe's and O'Bricks, were showing the U.S. game to large crowds.
The U.S.-Portugal game drew roughly 25 million viewers between ESPN and Univision's coverage during the group stage.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the generation," Lakewood Ranch Premier Sports Campus director Antonio Saviano said. "If you go back, let's say 15 years or so since the soccer's been growing, it's been having a steady growth. ... Some of these youth players that used to play 15, 18 years ago ... they're now in their 30s. And so now, it's all coming together because the new generation is just taking over because they played the game and they understand the game."
Former Lakewood Ranch resident Mario Garruto, who played soccer four years at Sarasota High and was at Ed's in his USA jersey, said better soccer coaching and youth player development is keeping soccer relevant.
"You've got South American coaches, you have European coaches, you have coaches from Africa," Garruto said. "It's starting to develop more like college soccer. I think that's where the developmental league is growing."
IMG Academy soccer director Scott Dean said soccer is the largest-attended sport on the private sports campus in Bradenton.
Roughly 220 full-time students play soccer at IMG, and they gathered in force to watch at Evie's Tavern on 53rd Avenue West.
The growing trend toward soccer becoming a big-time sport in the United States began with the World Cup in 1994 and amped up with year-round coverage of domestic leagues unavailable in the past.
"There's a huge amount of the game on TV now," Dean said. "You can watch it 24/7."
On Tuesday, fans were "oohing" and "ahhing" with collective groans and chanting, "U-S-A, U-S-A!" during the match against Belgium.
Kevin De Bruyne's 93rd-minute goal dampened spirits. Romelu Lukaku's 105th-minute goal seemed to crush any chance America had.
But in true American spirit, the U.S. team fought back with Julian Green's goal in the second extra-time period. The Americans had chances to equalize the match.
It didn't happen and so begins the four-year wait to see just how much more the United States can galvanize the nation in soccer.