Sitting on the right side of a cold beer and the wrong side of the opening whistle for the United States’ first 2014 World Cup match, Gene Hernandez waited anxiously Monday at Rock ’n’ Bowl on South Carrollton Avenue for the anticipation to end.
“I’m a nervous wreck,” he confessed as the team he has followed since he was a child prepared to play Ghana, the high-powered squad that eliminated the U.S. from contention in the last two World Cup tournaments.
Moments later, he was on his seat, arms thrust in the air after Clint Dempsey slipped the ball past the outstretched leg of Ghana’s goaltender just 50 seconds into the match.
Two hours later, Hernandez was thrilled as the U.S. team held on to win the game 2-1, giving itself a much-needed boost in the point system that will decide whether it advances to the elimination round.
“It was amazing,” he said. “This is a huge step for the U.S. team. I think people years from now will look back and realize how important this really was.”
The victory gave World Cup fever a shot in the arm throughout the United States, and fans gathered in living rooms and bars throughout New Orleans were no exception.
At Rock ’n’ Bowl, where players from the New Orleans Jesters of the National Premier Soccer League gathered to sign autographs and encourage people to watch the game, the atmosphere was decidedly more family-friendly than at some of the city’s other soccer havens, like Finn McCool’s.
Jenny Velasquez, an administrator at St. Martin’s Episcopal School, came with three generations of her family to watch the match.
As the game got ready to start, her two boys, ages 7 and 9 and fresh from soccer camp earlier in the day, kicked the ball around in front of the giant projection screen showing the teams warming up. Several feet away, their grandfather, Hector, who played for the Honduran national team from 1957 to 1962, picked away at a bowl of red beans.
“I wanted to be somewhere where my kids can feel the energy and the interaction with other people,” she said, adding that her 9-year-old, Reilly, is already planning to play in the 2022 World Cup.
Velasquez, who has loved soccer since she was a girl growing up in Ohio, met her husband, Bobby, 10 years ago playing in a coed league in City Park.
She said she thinks the World Cup is such an international event in the United States because the country is a nation of immigrants, and the tournament offers a unique perspective on the world.
“My kids are looking up where countries are on the map,” she said. “They were trying to pronounce Bosnian names last night. It was great.”
Still, as the game neared, Velasquez knew the U.S. had significant challenges ahead in its bid to advance out of the so-called “group of death,” which includes second-ranked Germany and fourth-ranked Portugal.
“I think we’ve got a tough road ahead. I won’t lie about that,” she said.
Drew Cambre, a barista at a downtown coffee shop, was decidedly more optimistic.
“This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had a chance to do something,” he said, undaunted by predictions that the U.S. team won’t go far this year. “Their preparation is absolutely perfect, and there’s nothing better than preparation.”
Cambre said he has noticed an increase in interest in World Cup soccer in New Orleans, as has Hernandez, who came here from Miami in 2003.
“You can feel it,” Hernandez said of the mood this year. “You can sense the World Cup is coming. There is a momentum.”
And for Hernandez, that momentum applies to more than just the team and its bid in this year’s tournament.
As a soccer fan, he said, he expects the success of the team to directly affect the popular acceptance of the sport in the U.S.
As he waited nervously before kickoff, Hernandez said a bad outing would have an outsized effect on the attention of a fickle U.S. audience.
“If we lose, for the next four years, all of that momentum is lost,” he said.
Momentum sustained. For one day, at least.