MILWAUKEE — The pub is packed with beer-swilling supporters cheering on their home country during a recent "friendly" exhibition match. They're belting out songs and chants as one fan keeps time by pounding on the giant drum he brought to the bar.
Leading the cheers is 28-year-old Nick Iwaniuk, dressed head to toe in his national soccer team's gear. And just in case anybody doubts his dedication, he's getting the team's crest tattooed on his chest before the World Cup starts.
This isn't Manchester, Milan, Madrid or Mexico City. It's Milwaukee.
"We have English guys coming in here going, 'This is amazing!'" said Joe Katz, owner of the Highbury Pub. "They're taking pictures — 'This is in Wisconsin?' It's totally caught on."
Largely shut out by mainstream sports bars — which don't open early enough to show European matches or aren't willing to boot more mainstream sports off the big-screen TV — U.S.-based soccer fans are flocking to a small but growing group of bars such as Highbury, where people probably aren't talking about the Packers when they say the word "football."
Soccer-themed bars already are a fairly common phenomenon in New York, where fans flock to places such as Nevada Smiths and The Irish Pub. But bars that open at dawn for pints and penalty kicks are sprouting across the country.
Drawing in a mix of ex-pats from overseas and rowdy 20-somethings, the U.S. soccer subculture is being nurtured at Piper's Pub in Pittsburgh, MacDinton's in Tampa, Brit's Pub in Minneapolis, the British Bulldog in Denver and the Crown and Anchor in Las Vegas.
They're places where everybody knows your name — if your name happens to be Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi.
And they've got big plans for the World Cup.
In Seattle, the George and Dragon Pub posted a warning on its website: "PLEASE DO NOT PLAN WEDDINGS, BIRTHS OR VACATIONS JUNE 11 TO JULY 11 2010."
At Mickey Byrne's Irish Pub and Restaurant in Hollywood, Fla., owner Mark Rowe is still upset over the controversial hand ball no-call that put France into the World Cup instead of Ireland. So whenever France gives up a goal during the World Cup, he'll give away a round of shots to everyone in the bar.
"We've got to give the Irish fans something to cheer for," said Rowe, a native of Ireland. "All in good jest, of course."
Chicago fans can choose from several soccer hot spots, including the Globe Pub, Small Bar and Ginger's Ale House.
Even in Packers-mad Milwaukee, Highbury isn't the only place to go to watch the "other" football. The Nomad World Pub is having a block party for the big June 12 U.S.-England game, and its website promises Brazilian dancers and African drummers for the July 11 final.
"It's growing in popularity," said Peter Wilt, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Wave professional indoor soccer team and a Highbury regular. "It's a subculture that began in the major cities — New York, Chicago, L.A. And in recent years, it has started to rear its ugly head in medium-town America."
And with ESPN's marketing machine fully behind the World Cup and guarded optimism about the U.S. team's chances, soccer pubs could profit from a new wave of casual fans curious to see what all the fuss is about.
"You HAVE to come to a soccer bar for the World Cup," said Highbury patron Jim Kogutkiewicz, who writes for a local soccer blog. "For Germany in '06 in this place, you would have never guessed Milwaukee had so many people from Turkey, Brazil, Chile."
Highbury holds about 80 people, but Katz wonders if 1,000 might show up for U.S.-England. He's putting up a tent with a projection TV in a back alley, and anybody who doesn't fit in there will be sent to other bars in the area.
Other places are bracing for big crowds.
The Globe in Chicago was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with fans wearing Inter Milan and Bayern Munich jerseys for the recent European Champions League finale — so crowded that bouncers stopped letting people in during the game, forcing a few fans to watch from the sidewalk through an open window and everyone else to mob the bar next door.
Patron Nick Adducci said the Globe had a line around the block during the '06 World Cup.
"We had to sneak in through the back," he said.
For U.S.-England, the British Bulldog in Denver plans to park a double-decker bus out front to use as a VIP area.
"We're carrying every World Cup game live, open at 5 a.m. every single day," general manager Jon Forget said. "We're not going to miss a match."
Washington, D.C.'s BlackFinn, a relatively new bar near the White House, has formed a partnership with MLS club D.C. United and is counting on soccer to draw a crowd.
"It's a niche market," manager Steven Ryan said. "It's been great for us to sort of put ourselves out there for people to associate us with sports, especially in the lead up to the World Cup because that's going to a time when a lot of people who aren't necessarily everyday soccer fans are going to start watching."
But hardcore fans rule at Highbury, which borrows its name from the old stadium that English club Arsenal used to play in and shows games from all over Europe. The bar also organizes outings to Wave games and bus trips to see the MLS' Chicago Fire.
While almost everybody in the bar roots for the U.S., loyalties are decidedly more divided when, say, Manchester United is playing Chelsea.2 comments on this story
"It's a riot," said Highbury bartender Alessia Palanti, 25, a native of Italy and fan of Fiorentina. "You wake up and it's this ragtag collection of crazy chants and creative songs."
But it's not literally a riot. Despite soccer fans' reputation for hooliganism, Kogutkiewicz said actual fights are rare even with the heated atmosphere.
"In here, you can say the weirdest, nastiest things to each other, and after the ref blows the whistle, we're done," he said. "I can put my arm around the guy, 'Hey, way to go, good game' and buy him a beer and we're done. It's a weird dynamic that you don't normally see elsewhere. At a Brewers game, you'll see Brewers and Cubs fans fighting. Here, it's not going to happen."
AP Sports Writers Joseph White, Pat Graham and Gregg Bell contributed to this story.