Last weekend, Korey Donahoo arrived from Lincoln at his New York hotel about 3:15 a.m. and got about an hour’s sleep before he was due for a “Good Morning America” taping. He'd be joining up with a crew of men and women wearing jerseys, scarves and bandanas all dedicated to the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team that the American Outlaws, which he co-founded in 2007, so feverishly support.
Donahoo got to spend some time backstage with U.S. team members Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, whose interviews were drowned out by the Outlaws' chanting.
It was difficult to do a head count of how many Outlaws showed up for "GMA," because a good many of their heads were covered by a giant banner they hoisted during the segment -- probably in the low hundreds.
Then Donahoo headed to a press conference organized by U.S. Soccer in advance of the 2014 World Cup. He was one of the American Outlaws made available to the press along with U.S. team members.
“Zero media asked us any questions,” he said. “It put me back in my place. It was humiliating and hilarious at the same time.”
Later that day, Donahoo appeared on a Broadway stage to be presented with an honor in advance of the trip he and some 500-plus American Outlaws are taking to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Roger Bennett, a host of Grantland's “Men in Blazers” soccer podcast, gave Donahoo a bulletproof vest.
“He said we couldn’t afford 500 so we’d just have to share,” Donahoo, 31, said.
There was a time not long ago when it seemed impossible to gather many U.S. soccer fans anywhere outside an arena, Donahoo said, let alone a morning show episode that also featured a 50 Cent performance. There was a time when there weren't leaders of an organized nationwide fan support system to not interview.
The initial goal of the Lincoln guys who would found the American Outlaws, Donahoo said, was to find a bar in town that would put the sound on during soccer games. Now, the American Outlaws claim 18,000-plus members in 131 U.S. chapter cities. In this World Cup year, the number of chapters might grow by the time this story runs.
But there was a time when Donahoo and Justin Brunken had to scramble to get 55 people to sign up for a 520-mile charter bus ride.
The first-ever American Outlaws excursion took place in September of 2007. The U.S. was playing Brazil at Soldier Field in Chicago, and Brunken said he and Donahoo had grown tired of road-tripping from Lincoln to one U.S. soccer match after the next to find that it was every fan for himself when you got there. They wanted a tailgate, a presence, a scene.
By the time Sept. 8, 2007, had come around, the two had found their bar (Captain Jack's, 140 N. 12th St.) and had the beginnings of an idea of what the Outlaws would be. The mission remains to "unite and strengthen" support for U.S. soccer.
In advance of that first trip, Brunken said, they asked their Lincoln friends, many of whom they played and watched soccer with, if they'd want to take a road trip to see a match. Sure, some 30 of them said. To fill the rest of the bus, they had to outsource.
Jordan Moehlenhoff, a friend of Donahoo's and a former Lincoln East High School soccer player, was tasked with finding people. That year, he lived with a couple of guys who were rush chairs with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s ATO and Sig Ep fraternities.
To them, Moehlenhoff offered this pitch: “Hey, do you guys want to go party for 36 hours and scream for the U.S.?”
His friends filled the rest of the bus.
“Yeah, that was a pretty easy sell,” Moehlenhoff said.
They boarded the chartered bus the day before the game at 8 a.m. At 8:01 a.m., Moehlenhoff recalled, the sound of cans cracking open cascaded through the bus. On the ride to Chicago, they chanted. They threw on the blue American Outlaws T-shirt that had been printed for the event. They scribbled a face on an inflatable bouncy ball and gave him a name. He was Kyle.
At some point someone put on a replay of the 2002 Round of 16 World Cup match between the U.S. and Mexico, which the USMNT won 2-0.
“People were cheering those games on like they were going on live,” Moehlenhoff said.
“It was a party all the way, up to that game,” Brunken said. “Some partied more than others. It was a blast, I remember. And that’s kind of how we recruit for fans. We don’t try to change people’s opinions on why they should watch soccer. All you have to do is join us at a bar to watch a game, or at one of the games in one of our sections or at one of our events. All you have to do is come watch and you’ll get hooked, I promise.”
That’s what began to happen on the maiden voyage to Chicago. The crew from Lincoln had a tailgate spot lined up and found scores of Brazilian fans in the lot with them. They danced with or, in some cases, at the opposing team’s supporters, banged on drums, sang songs, grilled and celebrated the national team together, which is the experience Brunken and Donahoo sought all along. It drew attention from fellow U.S. fans outside Soldier Field.
“People were just wondering what was going on with these 55 people with the same shirt on,” Brunken said.
They came prepared with an answer, in the form of a website address listed on “some cheesy business cards,” Brunken said. To the curious, they handed out cards that told them to go to americanoutlaws.com, which a friend and Outlaw, Ben Cohoon, had whipped up.
Brazil won, but that didn't ruin the experience. When they got back to Lincoln, Donahoo remembered seeing that someone had posted a message on bigsoccer.com, “where all of us soccer nerds used to go,” that congratulated the American Outlaws.
“We just thought that was so exciting,” he said.
From that first bus trip and the one stranger's blog post, the group grew exponentially.
“We were trying to think, possibly bigger picture at the time, but not knowing where it was gonna go from there,” Brunken said. “It’s crazy to think how far it’s come, that’s for sure.”
Brunken said he has marveled at how invested fans are in chapters throughout the country. He's seen cars wrapped in AO graphics. He's seen people roll up sleeves to reveal tattoos of the ball, crossbones and bandana logo.
AO members have traveled the world in support of their team. Donahoo has had beer and ramen noodles tossed in his general direction during the 2013 draw between Mexico and the U.S. at the famously hostile Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Moehlenhoff said he's still asked, perhaps once a week, about his experience in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup. (He might have something to do with the World Cup stadium seat bolted to the wall at Captain Jack's, but nobody would come clean with an explanation about that.)
This year, the Outlaws are featured in an ESPN World Cup promo, marching, chanting and drumming their way into a frenzy. On June 14, two chartered jets full of them are scheduled to land in Brazil, where they will attend all three U.S. matches in the Group of Death. The trip will be documented by a professional film crew and countless tweets, pictures and video clips on a website dedicated to the trip, aoinbrazil.com.
But to qualify to become an American Outlaws chapter, all a city still needs is 25 guaranteed members and a bar to host them that will play the broadcast game audio.
Last Sunday, some of the Lincoln Outlaws who weren't in New York for the U.S.-Turkey match watched it at Captain Jack's. Many more members were at the Abbott Sports Complex for a 7-on-7 soccer tournament. Normally, the bar is elbow-to-elbow for a U.S. match. On June 1, it was merely standing room only. But when Fabian Johnson scored the first of two goals for the good guys, the place erupted.
"This is the thing I'm most passionate about," Nick Verlaney, a member since 2008, said. "When you're in this bar, you get hooked immediately."