Western New York is caught in the grip of soccer fever - The Buffalo News

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Western New York is caught in the grip of soccer fever

Russ Andolina got his first taste of Buffalo’s passion for soccer in 2010.

He and a few friends went to Papa Jake’s bar and restaurant on Elmwood Avenue to watch the United States play England in the World Cup. They expected a sparse crowd. When they got there, it was packed with wall-to-wall fans fervently cheering on Team USA.

The past few years have been filled with scenes like these as soccer’s popularity in Western New York has seemed to grow exponentially.

More than a few TVs here will be tuned in to ESPN today at 5:30 p.m., when the U.S. soccer team plays its World Cup opener against Ghana.

When it comes to TV ratings, the Buffalo market punches above its weight for the sport. Buffalo finished in the top 10 in the United States for the 2013 Confederation Cup (ninth), the 2013 Gold Cup final (seventh), a FIFA World Cup qualifier against Honduras (second) and last month’s English Premier League championship (second).

Andolina and a few other area soccer fans took notice of the rising TV ratings and general interest in the game and took initiative to build on the popularity.

The group formed the Buffalo Soccer Council, over which Andolina presides. The council’s tasks include promoting youth soccer in the area, putting on street soccer tournaments and getting groups together for games such as those of FC Buffalo, the local entry in the National Premier Soccer League.

“We started last August, just a handful of us from around town,” Andolina said. “Players, fans, people involved in the game who wanted to get together. We noticed the progress of the game around the city, good attendance for FC Buffalo, good ratings for the U.S. national team. We wanted to build on that momentum and have people buy into Buffalo soccer as an identity.”

Andolina and his peers won’t be taken by surprise this time by the surging local interest in the World Cup. They are fully expecting major crowds for games involving the U.S.

Among the area bars that will dedicate the next month to showing World Cup games, one establishment stands out. Mes Que on Hertel Avenue has become the area’s most popular spot for major soccer action.

Mes Que, which opened with the intention of being a small pub for a few dedicated soccer fans, has been wildly popular since Day One, according to manager Greg Nicotera.

“The first day we opened, April 26, 2012, was a Real Madrid vs. Barcelona game,” Nicotera said. “The bar was full, you couldn’t move. This was our ‘soft-opening.’ We had two bartenders and a cook.”

Mes Que has plans to accommodate the influx of fans expected for big games such as Team USA’s match up with Portugal on June 22.

“Mes Que is working with other businesses on Hertel to have that side of the street really be World Cup central,” Andolina said. “For bigger games like USA vs. Portugual, there will be seven screens lining the sidewalk. The alley will be available. There’ll be outdoor grills. Really, it’s going to be a festival-like atmosphere on the block.”

Other bars are hoping to attract fans of the Beautiful Game. The Lodge on West Chippewa Street will show every World Cup game on every TV in its establishment. Resurgence Brewery has advertised on its Facebook page that it will show World Cup games.

During non-World Cup time, the employees of Mes Que devote a lot of effort to promoting Buffalo FC. The fourth-division semipro team also has grown in popularity. Between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the team’s average attendance nearly doubled from just over 500 to just under 1,000 fans per game.

Chris Walter – one of the team’s defenders and an Amherst native – has definitely noticed a change in the team’s popularity since he joined in 2011. He said the sport’s popularity here is growing every day.

“From playing with FC Buffalo for four years, the difference from the amount of fans coming from my first year until now is unbelievable,” he said.

FC Buffalo struggled for its first few years of existence before making the Great Lakes Conference Playoffs for the first time in 2013. Walter knows the only way for the team to build on its growing popularity is to continue to win.

Last year “was a huge step in the right direction,” Walter said. “People want to see a winning team and we didn’t have that for the first couple years.”

While the attendance numbers are still modest, Andolina notes they’re pretty good for a semipro team. He hopes Buffalo can someday be home to a professional team (the top three divisions of the American Soccer Pyramid are considered pro).

Andolina said getting into Major League Soccer right away is a long shot because of the rising value of teams and Buffalo’s relative inexperience at the pro level. Andolina believes Buffalo could support a team in the North American Soccer League or the United States Leagues Pro Division.

“I think there are definitely early signs that are positive that people in this area want soccer in some capacity,” Andolina said.

Beyond larger social gatherings and better TV ratings, the sport has grown in youth circles, especially in the inner city.

In 2012, Amanda Swallow and Mateo Escobar began working on what is now the West Side International Soccer Club. The duo, along with volunteers from all backgrounds, provide house soccer for children in Buffalo free of charge.

They started with 40 kids. That number has quintupled in just over two years.

While all children ages 4 to 17 are welcome to play, Swallow and Escobar focus on serving low-income and refugee children. Kids from at least 12 countries have played in the league, many refugees from war-torn areas.

“There’s a lot of interest and there’s also a need in that there’s not really a lot of accessibility,” Escobar said. “We try to make it accessible to low-income and refugee families because otherwise it’s very expensive to play.”

Often people of the same ethnic background will create exclusive soccer clubs. Swallow and Escobar want to work against that.

“We want to break down socioeconomic and cultural barriers and create community programs for everyone,” Swallow said. “And what better a vehicle to do that than soccer?”

Buffalo’s growing immigrant and refugee populations have contributed to the increased popularity of soccer in the region, according to Andolina. This means more than just increased enrollment in youth soccer. It means better ratings for international games and higher interest in World Cup games that don’t involve the United States.

“In the city, the immigrant population is exploding,” Andolina said. “The youth population is exploding.

“We have a lot of refugees from places like Somalia and Burma and a lot of these countries where soccer is number one. We had a street soccer tournament and we had 18 nationalities there.”

Buffalo’s youth soccer participation is not limited to this club, however. Most towns and villages in the area have their own local organizations.

Additionally, the national organization Soccer Shots, which has a Buffalo division, dedicates itself to teaching children as young as 2 the fundamentals of the game. The organization even provides all necessary equipment to ensure that children whose parents may not be able to afford extra equipment aren’t left out.

Soccer’s growth has not been limited to Buffalo. Participation in youth soccer in the United States has increased steadily since the 1970s and is now ahead of all other youth sports. According to NBC, more than 31 million tuned in for May’s English Premier League final. Soccer is quickly becoming America’s fifth major sport.

Andolina and his peers realize that, and they don’t want Buffalo to miss out.

“You have outlets like Fox Soccer Channel, NBC’s investment in the EPL or the way ESPN is going to treat this World Cup,” Andolina said. “People see that it’s not only here to stay, it’s going to be growing and thriving as the years progress. We wanted to build on that momentum and have people buy into Buffalo soccer as an identity.”

email tnigrelli@buffnews.com

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