Written by Sean Walker (swalker@reviewjournal.com)

When Las Vegas resident Herculez Gomez entered the U.S. soccer team’s second-round game against Ghana as a substitute on Saturday, there was little applause from the 34,976 fans at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa.

Back home, it was a different story.

“(Gomez) is from Vegas, so you’ve got to (support him),” said Carlos Vasaldua, a 33-year-old Las Vegas native. “It’s hot outside, 104 degrees, and people are outside rooting for the USA.”

The 33-year-old Chaparral High School graduate led the crowd with chants of “Ve-GAS! Ve-GAS!” inside a tent behind the Crown and Anchor Pub on East Tropicana Avenue as Gomez, the former Las Vegas High standout, replaced striker Jozy Altidore in the 90th minute of the USA’s 2-1 loss to Ghana in the knockout stage of the World Cup.

After three dramatic group stage games against England, Slovenia and Algeria, some fans felt let down by the U.S. team’s performance against Ghana.

“The atmosphere was great, but it sucks to be let down,” said Matt Makavic, a Tucson, Ariz., native. “I’ve been to three World Cups. … We’re in the mix; we are soccer fanatics. And to watch this go on is a bunch of (expletive).”

The Americans’ hope of a quarterfinal appearance on Friday may have been dashed with a loss to the Black Stars, but — if only for a few brief moments — the world’s game captured the hearts and minds of the nation.

The standing-room-only crowd at the pub was one of thousands of packed bars, casinos and living rooms across the nation as the U.S. attempted to advance to its first quarterfinals since 2002. Back then, only a niche gathering of supporters witnessed the Yanks’ 2-0 win over Mexico, but this year has seen unprecedented attention to soccer in pop culture, media and on late-night television.

The United States’ first match against England drew 10.8 million viewers to become the fifth-most watched soccer match in the United States since 1994, according to the Nielsen ratings. Las Vegas drew an 11.0 rating, trailing only San Diego (11.5) and San Francisco (11.2) nationally.

For Vasaldua and his friends of ex-soccer players and supporters, the growth in popularity is refreshing.

“It’s soccer. It’s growing, even in the United States,” he said. “It’s a sport that’s got to get big here; it’s big around the world. I grew up playing it, and we all played it. It’s time.”

Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng sank the hearts of U.S. fans early when he struck the net in the fifth minute. Almost in perfect unison, the crowd sighed as the Americans fell behind early for the third match of the tournament.

But the Yanks’ battled back to earn a penalty kick in the 62nd minute, which rising celebrity and Major League Soccer star Landon Donovan calmly buried.

“I guarantee that the Galaxy’s stadium is going to be packed when Donovan comes back,” Vasaldua predicted.

Chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” filled the air in the second half as near-misses collided with stellar saves by the Ghanaian defense for a 1-1 draw through 90-plus minutes of regulation that saw the few lucky fans with chairs rarely using them.

During the break, fans inside the sweltering bar blared personal vuvuzelas, and only a few left their seats to go to the bathroom, step outside or get another beer.

When Asamoah Gyan scored what proved to be the winning goal for Ghana in the 92nd minute the crowd deflated. Only a handful of chances — including a pass inches from the foot of Gomez — left the crowd wishing for a better result.

Makavic, a licensed coach with U.S. Soccer, said the loss falls on the shoulders of head coach Bob Bradley.

“It all comes down to coaching,” Makavic said. “We cannot defend. The Algeria game was our first clean sheet since 1950. And it’s the coach’s fault.”

The result was familiar to the U.S. side, which lost to Ghana 2-1 in the final group game of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

“What are the chances of the same team that’s ranked way below you knocking you out twice in two consecutive World Cups? That puts all the odds in our favor,” said Makavic, who has been to three World Cups. “The odds were against Ghana, and they beat us again.”

A lone Ghana supporter braved hostile conditions to watch the last African team in the World Cup, leading to a minor confrontation when a group of U.S. fans exchanged obscene gestures with him and then chased after him out of the tent. But the moment was the exception, not the rule.

“The crowd was good, but there were moments when I felt uncomfortable,” said 21-year-old Grace Yoon, a U.S. fan. “They were borderline offensive to Africans. … But overall, it was a good crowd.”

For some of the U.S. side’s fans, their interest in the World Cup was dramatically diminished following the loss. Others, like Vasaldua, kept a contingency plan to remain interested.

“Tomorrow I’ve got to go for Mexico,” Vasaldua said. “(But) even though my mom and dad are from Mexico, USA is my team.”

Credit: www.lvrj.com (LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL)

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