Alongside a few (thousand) friends, Americans gather at stadiums, plazas for US-Belgium game

The Associated Press

United States fan Joe Trombley, of Farmington, Mich., reacts while watching the 2014 World Cup soccer match between the United States and Belgium at a public viewing party, in Detroit, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Associated Press + More

By JIM VERTUNO, AP Sports Writer

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — His right cheek painted with an American flag, Jon Watson sat sweating in the Texas heat.

He didn't mind the searing sun, the 90-plus degree temperatures or the lack of a breeze in Austin. He was here for a party with thousands of other American soccer fans set to watch the U.S. play Belgium in the World Cup, with the winner set to move on the quarterfinals of the biggest sporting event in the world.

"And I'm not even a soccer fan. I'm a tennis guy. I should be watching Wimbledon," Watson said. "But I wanted to get out and be part of the community, to come together and cheer for the same team."

From Texas to Chicago to California, U.S. fans flocked to public spaces, from wide open parks to sports stadiums to their favorite sports bars, to watch the game.

Tuesday's game was the fourth for the U.S. in Brazil as it tried to move deeper into the tournament. With every game, the crowds have swelled as die-hard soccer fans joined the newcomers. Suddenly, America looks like a soccer-crazed country, as people skip work and gather in big crowds and watch the game play out on giant screens.

Each game has pulled in more fans: The U.S.-Portugal game drew 24.7 million television viewers overall, and the 18.22 million who watched on ESPN were the most the network has ever attracted for an event not involving American football. The Germany game averaged 10.7 million viewers, making it the third-most watched World Cup game ever on the network.

Sites were preparing for an even bigger influx for this game. In Chicago, home of the U.S. Soccer federation, officials moved a game watch event from a public park to Soldier Field to accommodate a larger crowd. The city expects up to 20,000 at the stadium which can hold up to 61,500.

Heat was a concern at some venues. In the nation's capital, there were misting stations at the block-long Freedom Plaza to keep fans cool. That wasn't a problem at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where thousands watched the match in the air-conditioned home of the Dallas Cowboys.

In Washington, crowds sang the national anthem together and it was hard to find a seat at game time. Marie Davenport, 76, set up a folding chair outside of the main crowd but with a good view of the big screen.

Davenport, a retired teacher who splits her time between the U.S. and Germany, said the screen and the crowd's enthusiasm was much better than watching from her living room.

"I think that after this World Cup Americans are sold on soccer," said Davenport.

President Barack Obama left the confines of the White House Oval office and joined about 200 staffers in an Executive Office Building auditorium to watch the second half of the game.

"I believe!" he exclaimed as he walked in at the front of the hall. "I believe!"

He was quickly joined by a chorus of "I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!"

As he took a seat in the auditorium's front row, he said sheepishly, "I was worried that if I walked in and Belgium scored, I'd get in trouble."

In Austin, the city set up a watch party at outdoor park near downtown and more than 1,000 set up lawn chairs and blankets to watch the game on giant screens. Volunteers passed out sunscreen. Despite the heat, some fans showed up hours early to stake out a shady spot or one with the best view of the screens.

Most wore red, white and blue, and many brought American flags, making it look like and early Fourth of July party.

Caitlyn Baldasaro, a 21-year-old college student, said she's seen video images of giant World Cup watch parties in places like Paris, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro and predicted they will only get bigger in the U.S. as the Americans progress farther in the tournament.

She noticed the mix of soccer experts and novices that have been in the crowds so far. She considers herself an expert.

"I've played soccer my whole life. It's the one sport I understand," Baldasaro said.