Colin Mall used to see a lot of scrunched foreheads and squinted eyes when he talked about his favorite sport.
“I’m trying to find the Chelsea game,” he’d say.
Cue the quizzical look.
“Chelsea game?” folks would reply. “Are girls playing?”
Not so long ago, talking soccer in Oklahoma was a little like speaking a foreign language. Corner kicks? Red cards? International friendlies? Folks in our sports-mad state might understand the basics, but few knew more than that.
But as the World Cup begins Thursday in Brazil, soccer is no longer the outlier that it was even a few years ago.
Let’s start with Mall’s cell phone.
Every few minutes, it rings or beeps or vibrates. Mall is the president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Outlaws, an unofficial fan club of the U.S. national soccer teams. Whenever someone posts to the chapter’s Facebook page, he gets a notification.
Lately, there have been lots of them.
People are excited for the U.S. to play its first match Monday against Ghana. They are pumped. They are passionate. They are patriotic.
What has changed?
Mall is convinced that TV has a lot to do with it.
Four years ago, World Cup matches were widely available on television, and American viewers were treated to some wildly entertaining matches involving the U.S. The Americans managed only draws in their first two matches and needed a victory in their final group-stage match against Algeria. The match went into stoppage time as a scoreless tie, and had it ended that way, the U.S. would’ve been eliminated.
Then, Landon Donovan scored one of the great late-match goals in American soccer history, a rebound that sent even lukewarm fans into hysterics.
The Americans’ next match against Ghana was a TV ratings bonanza as nearly 15 million households tuned in. That number is comparable to Game 3 of NBA Finals on Tuesday night.
Not the Super Bowl, but for soccer in the U.S., it was a big number.
That helped spur change in the broadcast of soccer in the United States. In the years since that last World Cup, American viewers can now easily see matches from the UEFA Champions League and the English Premier League.
That sort of thing was unheard of when Mall was a kid growing up playing soccer in Edmond.
“Most of the time you would have to catch a game ... the day after it was played,” he said. “All the networks are fighting for the rights for them now.”
These days, Mall and other soccer fans gather most Saturday mornings to watch English Premier League matches. It’s quite a change from when he used to mention Chelsea, a longtime powerhouse in the league, and folks would have no idea what he meant.
Not to say there were no other soccer fans out there. Mall occasionally met others who loved the sport like he did — watching the U.S. match against England in the 2010 World Cup at McNellie’s, he found himself sitting by a table of rabid Englishmen turned Okies — but soccer fans were few and far between.
When the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Outlaws started soon after the last World Cup, it did so with seven members.
Mall was one of the originals. So was Noah Hutchens.
Unlike Mall, Hutchens didn’t play soccer as a kid. He just happened to be in Chicago in 2007 to see his beloved Cubs play when the U.S. men’s team was playing there as part of a doubleheader. On a whim, he decided to go.
He doesn’t even remember who the U.S. played. What still stands out in his mind, though, is the atmosphere inside the stadium. Mexico was playing in the other match of the doubleheader, and the Mexican fans had the place buzzing.
“It’s different than any other sport I’ve been to,” Hutchens said.
He’s become so passionate that he will leave Oklahoma City on Friday night for Brazil.
Destination: World Cup 2014.
Four years ago, he watched the World Cup with a few friends at Old Germany. This year, he’ll see the matches with hundreds of other American Outlaws in Brazil.
His only regret is that he won’t be with his American Outlaw friends in Oklahoma City.
“As weird as it is to say, I’m actually sad to be missing the watch party,” Hutchens said of the chapter’s planned gatherings at Skinny Slim’s. “It’s going to be really crazy and a lot of fun.”
That’s because the chapter that didn’t even exist three years ago now has nearly 200 members.
And it’s growing every day. Mall gets an email from the American Outlaws national office every time a new member joins, and over the past week, at least three or four people have signed up every day.
The world’s game might not be ready to take over the sports landscape, but it’s obvious that soccer is now part of the scene.
“It is no longer a joke,” Hutchens said. “I don’t think anyone can say soccer is a joke in America any more.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.