- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 1, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - As the World Cup reached unprecedented levels of popularity the past two weeks in the United States, the question has again arisen: Is this the time Americans finally embrace soccer as a mainstream sport?

For thousands of Americans who traveled to Brazil, though, that time came years ago. U.S. citizens purchased nearly 200,000 tickets to this year’s World Cup, second only to host country Brazil.

Getting to Brazil, let alone navigating within South America’s largest country, is no easy feat, but thousands, including several Pittsburgh area residents, saved their money and took time off work and school to head down for soccer’s biggest quadrennial party.

For American fans, their planning and saving paid off when the U.S., against the odds, advanced out of its “Group of Death” to set up a round of 16 knockout game against Belgium at 4 p.m. today.

Some fans set up itineraries to travel with the U.S. team, going from the beaches of Natal to the depths of the Amazon in Manaus. Others took in various group stage games, meeting fans from different countries and continents.

All, though, went for the love of the sport.

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As soon as Jim Taylor saw the look on Justin Brunken and Korey Donahoo’s faces, he knew something was wrong.

Brunken and Donahoo, two founders of the American Outlaws, a supporters’ group for the U.S. men’s soccer team, were about to ask Taylor, 39, of Robinson and president of Pittsburgh’s Outlaws chapter, for a favor. The three were in Houston, about to take off for the group’s trip to Brazil for the World Cup.

At least, that was the plan. One of the two planes the Outlaws had chartered to Brazil was 14 seats short, so Brunken and Donahoo had to ask Taylor and others to give up their seats and take another flight.

“The look of terror on their faces was enough,” Taylor said. “They’re solid guys so I said OK.”

Taylor and 13 others ended up flying from Houston to Port of Spain, Trinidad, and then Georgetown, Guyana, before awaiting another chartered flight to take them to Natal, Brazil, site of the U.S.’s first game against Ghana June 16.

While the vast majority of the 500-plus fans who traveled with the Outlaws to Brazil were partying at U.S. soccer’s pregame party in Natal, the “AO 14,” as they became known on Twitter, arrived in Georgetown about 2 a.m. the night before the game and spent the night in a euphemistically named airport lounge.

“You know how after you wear your shoes for like four days with the same socks and then you go into an old-school Pittsburgh basement with just a Pittsburgh toilet? That’s what this airport lounge smelled like,” Taylor said.

By 6 a.m., with still no plane to take them to Brazil, Taylor began to seriously doubt that he would make it in time for the game. Shortly after the last World Cup, he signed up to attend and had saved for almost four years.

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