Soccer fans looking to bring the World Cup to Tampa will test their might next week when the U.S. men's team plays El Salvador in an exhibition match.
Members of the American Outlaws, a cheering group for the national soccer team, are drumming up support to fill Raymond James Stadium with fans loyal to the red, white and blue.
"I hope the crowd turns out,'' said Mike Fera, head of the newly formed American Outlaws Tampa chapter. "That would really help us'' get the Cup.
Wednesday's match, known as a friendly because it doesn't count in the standings, is one of the last games before the U.S. team goes to the World Cup in South Africa in June. El Salvador didn't qualify for the Cup but has a strong local fan base of people from South and Central America.
"This game is a big deal for them,'' Fera said. "This is their chance to make us look silly.''
American Outlaws from around the country are coming to Tampa to watch the game, the U.S. men's first international match here since 2007, when a crowd of 31,547 turned out to watch Landon Donovan and company defeat Ecuador 3-1. MacDinton's, the group's home viewing bar, is hosting pre-game parties Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. Buses will shuttle fans to the tailgating party at the stadium.
The American Outlaws was founded in 2007 in Nebraska to unify U.S. fans, which are often outnumbered by fans of opposing teams.
"It's sad to see a game on American soil not dominated by U.S. fans,'' said Fera, 25, who grew up playing soccer. "That's what we're out to change.''
A big turnout would show U.S. Soccer officials that Tampa has enough grassroots support to host the World Cup, the most widely viewed sporting event in the world.
"A lot of people don't think it's a big sport in the United States, but if you go anywhere else in the world, it's a huge deal,'' said American Outlaws member David Ulch, 25, of Tampa. "You have to start small, but once you get more and more people into it, it will turn into tradition.''
Gradually, Tampa is becoming more of a soccer town, he said. Last month, Tampa was named one of 18 cities that will be included in the United States' bid to host the 2018 or 2022 Cup. In May, professional soccer returns to Tampa when the Tampa Bay Rowdies start playing at Steinbrenner Field.