COLUMBIA — During the Major League Soccer All-Star Game on Wednesday, Jay Sparks stood beneath a flag featuring the logo of the Sporting Kansas City. He wore a Royals hat and and a Sporting Kansas City shirt. It's easy to see where his allegiances lie.
Sparks is the co-founder of the CoMo Cauldron, a fan group for Sporting Kansas City that meets for every game at McNally's Irish Pub on Sixth Street. The American Outlaws, a fan group for the United States men's national soccer team, also calls McNally's home. The two groups get together to cheer on their team with other local soccer fans.
According to an ESPN poll from 2012, professional soccer is the second most popular sport in America among males age 12-24, behind only the NFL. The numbers reveal a gradual shift in American sentiments towards the sport.
"It's been a very gradual process," said CoMo Cauldron and American Outlaw member Scott Rowson. "Sort of an evolution."
The CoMo Cauldron has evolved from a few friends watching the game together into dozens of soccer fans clad in blue rooting for their favorite club. The Columbia branch of the American Outlaws has grown steadily from its start as well, reaching close to 50 fans forSunday's Gold Cup final in which the U.S. beat Panama 1-0. But the groups aren't done expanding yet.
"Our goal is to have one hundred by the next world cup," American Outlaws Columbia Vice President Nik Hargis said.
Both groups strive to entice a different breed of sports fan. They also hope to dispel the rowdy soccer hooligan stereotype and create a friendly environment.
During the all-star game, Sparks' two sons, Jameson, 6, and Eli, 4, sat next to their dad at the bar. All three were draped in blue scarves emblazoned with "CoMo Cauldron."
"Zeus!" Eli shouted the nickname excitedly of Kansas City and U.S. national team midfielder Graham Zusi as the player flashed on the screen.
Despite McNally's proximity to the colleges downtown, the two groups have few undergraduate students among their ranks. Group leaders cite medical and law students as well as young professionals as their main demographics.
"We're not a bunch of college kids pounding beer and shouting at the TV," said Sparks, who bartends at McNally's.
The two groups have more than a meeting place in common. Almost all of the CoMo Cauldron members have also pledged their support to the American Outlaws.
"There's a ton of overlap," Sparks said.
Although they share many members, the two groups have different structures. The Cauldron exists solely as a "Twitter and Facebook entity." There are no elected positions, just people getting together to watch the game.
The American Outlaws has a more rigid hierarchy. As a large national organization, the Outlaws require at least 25 members before there can be an official chapter. They also require elected leaders to be in charge of each satellite group.
McNally's now serves as a the informal capital of soccer fans in Columbia, providing a base camp for supporters who haven't had anywhere else to go to catch Sporting Kansas City matches.
"There were a lot of people watching disparately," Rowson said. "This is kind of bringing them together."
Most members of both groups grew up playing and watching soccer, but they're still willing to accept people who aren't as familiar with the world's most popular sport. Hargis said he'd be happy buy prospective members a beer and tell them a little bit about the teams he loves.
"Hopefully with the free beer and the free knowledge, they'll get hooked," Hargis said.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.